Recently, I spent a week in Korea to speak at the World Knowledge Forum in Seoul. It was fun spending time with the other speakers, such as David Epstein, author of the provocative book The Sports Gene, and friends Tyler Cowen, Jeff Jarvis, and Andy McAfee. Prior to the event in Seoul, I spent a few days in Jeju island on my own, just reading and hanging out.
My big picture, touristic impressions of Korea:
- It felt very similar to Japan, which isn’t surprising given the country was ruled by Japan in the early 1900’s. Korea is wealthy and boasts advanced infrastructure—just like Japan, a rare thing in Asia. So it’s a super easy country to navigate, tourist-wise. I should note that Korea didn’t seem as weird as Japan, at least on the surface. Korea felt more Western in certain cultural respects whereas Japan is all its own.
- 60 years ago Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Today it’s one of the richest. Despite a jaw-dropping economic transformation, indeed one that’s notable in all of human history, today’s Koreans do not seem exceptionally self-confident about their economic future. Several folks I spoke to worried about whether their culture accommodates entrepreneurship. They see their famous tech giants as imitators more than innovators. These anxious attitudes may, of course, actually help explain their past and potential future success: Koreans are incredibly hard workers, they believe mightily in education, and they take success very seriously. It stands to reason that business leaders would not rest on their Samsung and Hyundai style national laurels and instead collectively stress about their economic prospects.
- If there’s one reason for Koreans to stress, it’d be because of the demographic trends–it’s the most rapidly aging country in the world.
- In terms of the local labor market, you might think ideas in The Alliance would not be relevant. It’s true that Korean companies have been “families” for most of recent history. The company-man, die hard loyalty, and so on were strongly held beliefs for decades. But it’s changing. As companies seek to adapt to the global economy, they’re implementing more flexible labor compacts. Most young Korean workers today, according to surveys, say they’d switch employers if there were a better opportunity, and most say they don’t feel particularly loyal to their current employer.
- Some of the restaurant customs are interesting. Most restaurants have water dispensers that you use to re-fill your glass on your own or they put a pitcher of water on the table right after you sit down. For a water guzzler like myself, this is a great perk. Less fun is Korea’s default choice of napkins. They use the thin, small square napkins that are used in Chile as well. It’s so odd–the napkins are skimpy so you have to use three or four to wipe your hands of even the littlest bit of sauce. At least in Korea, unlike Chile, several causal restaurants will put a mini-trash can at your table so you can dispose of the dozens of napkins you use as you use them!
- I do not like kimchi.
- “Selfie sticks” — if that’s what they’re called — are all the rage. On Jeju Island, where I spent a couple days, everyone hiked with a selfie stick that held their phone camera out at a distance to take a nice selfie. One odd consequence is that nobody asks anyone else to take their picture, a usual moment of forced social interaction amongst strangers.
- I didn’t make it to the DMZ on this trip. Next time.
- A college degree is a commodity. 98% of young Koreans have degrees from a junior college or university–the highest rate in the world. Amazing.
All in all, Korea doesn’t have any show stopping tourist attractions. But because of its importance to the global economy, it’s a country and culture worth understanding.
Flying there, I read a great general survey book on all things Korea by Daniel Tudor called The Impossible Country. The perfect pre-read for anyone visiting who needs to brush up on their basic history and culture. Below the fold are my extensive highlights from the book.