Sunday, June 10, 2007

June 2007 Seoul Commentary: Past and Present

June 2007 Seoul Commentary: Past and Present

Although I monitor Korea daily through the media and converse with my colleagues via web cam and web chat, frequent visits provide the deepest insights. Unlike many who arrive at Incheon International Airport and have commitments, which require that within hours they be on a work-related tour or a meeting dealing with urgent business matters, I arrive several days early to observe and analyze. This commentary provides a socio-economic, marketing, and popular view of South Korea--June 2007. The commentary concludes with some suggestions for those who interact with Koreans, have business ventures in Korea, or work for one of the ever growing Korea-based global organizations.

Past and Present
Past and present is one way I view Korea, perhaps more so on this trip with warm weather allowing folk tradition to be highlighted in public venues.

To begin, multiple snapshots form an image of modern Seoul.
1. As I sit in a Starbucks near Seoul City Hall, a huge public event blasts music through a mountain of speakers rivaling a rock concert. On stage, the beat of large traditional drums is joined by scores of Koreans dressed in hanbok who follow along with smaller percussion instruments in a rhythmic folk dance. Street side, a team of 6 or 7 Korean teens dressed in identical black t-shirts and sporting Beatles-like 60s mop-hair follow the pulsing music in synchronized hip hop dance.

2. In Deoksugung, one of Seoul’s 5 grand palaces, scores of newlyweds—men in suits and women in western-style bridal gowns--are jockeyed by wedding photographers for the best view of the traditional landscape. Focused on their new lives together in the 21st century, I wonder if some realize the ground’s significance---the palace home to the last rulers of Korea’s 600 year Choson dynasty. (BTW, negotiations for concessions, which brought technology to Korea in the late 19th, were granted from the palace. These included American-led mining, railroad, electrical, water, and streetcars systems.)

3. On a Sunday walk thorough Insa-dong--Seoul’s arts and crafts district popular with both tourist and locals--one finds vendors spread out on side alleys selling antiques; shops with wares of traditional pottery, manuscripts, and artifacts; a troupe performing traditional folk dance, all amid crowds chatting on the very latest in cell phone technology while snapping photos on their compact digital cameras. Among the strollers, one quickly recognizes a hip style and fashion conscious population—not unlike LA, NYC, Melbourne, or London. Mixed in with a Buddhist monk in grey hanbok, are older men dressed in Patagonia vests and pants, teens wearing Manchester United athletic apparel, young urban professionals sporting Versace sunglasses and Titlist visors, and women in layered summer fashion and designer Prada purses,… minutes later a procession of traditional soldiers and Choson era officials parade down the street.

Past and present is an aspect of modern Korea—and one of concern for many people. Some feel modernization, technology, and globalization along with scores of Starbucks, Outbacks, TGI Fridays, and Domino Pizza, will rob the nation of its rich heritage.
After closely studying the issue, I see little need for concern; in fact, I feel South Korea is doing a wonderful job of blending past and present. A recent urban enhancement project such as the Cheongye cheon, which has uncovered and restored one of Seoul’s ancient streams, is but one example. What matters, for non-Koreans, is an awareness, sensitivity and mindfulness towards the issues of tradition and the past.

Some suggestions and thoughts for non-Koreans….

1. Learn about Korea’s past. Get some relevant background on Korea’s long and rich heritage. Senior managers need to make sure their teams are aware of this too.

2. Recognize that many younger Koreans (Gen Y and 20:30s) care little of the past and are focused on the latest trends—the latest cell phone technology, trends in clothes, and new hip urban centers. In fact, some of these groups even downplay the importance traditional aspects have on society to their non-Korean colleagues—the past not linked to progress. Be wary, many Koreans (386ers, 50:60s) and a number of civic and activist groups treasure and wish to preserve, protect, and promote Korea’s heritage. BTW, I’ve found that Koreans who often serve as key liaisons for global organizations are usually from the 20:30 gen.

3. Be aware that recent moves to highlight the past within a modern dynamic society (Seoul’s Cheongye cheon, Gwanghwamun, Daehanmun, Namdaemun, and the China Town Paeru in Incheon.) When possible, embrace and support these projects—like Korean businesses including Lotte, Shinsegae, Hyosung, LG, etc.

4. Finally, building a strong long lasting business and professional relationship begins with understanding each other’s culture, especially within global organizations. Knowledge and insight into modern Korea, its markets, and society is vital and important for those linked to Korean business.

BCW is dedicated to assisting in this quest, 24-7-365.

Questions, comments, requests…?


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