A Korean wave is sweeping the world. The secretary-general of the United Nations is Korean, the head of the IMF is a Korean-American. “Gangnam Style,” a song by the Korean rapper Psy, has become the most watched video on YouTube.
In the past decade Korean companies, Samsung, LG, Hyundai and others, have become household names across the globe. The epic battle between Apple and Samsung for dominance in mobile devices is testament that Korean companies stand second to none.
The success of Korea is particularly astounding since until the 1960s the nation was dirt poor, having suffered a brutal period of Japanese colonization followed by the devastation of the Korean War. What are the lessons for others from Korea’s rapid rise on the world stage?
First, that post-secondary education is the main driver of success in the global marketplace. Knowledge, both theoretical and applied, is essential in designing and manufacturing cars, supertankers, mobile phones, and making movies and videos. That many Koreans are willing and able to learn English and study overseas, allows them to access the world markets, be it in science, diplomacy or business.
The achievements of Korea are the direct result of a skilled workforce, as the country lacks natural resources and has no sources of energy. The second lesson is that government strategy and support are essential for industries and individuals to compete, and succeed, internationally. A decade ago the Korean government made it a priority to strengthen the entertainment and cultural sector, after concluding that the nation could no longer compete in some manufacturing industries with lower-wage economies.
This decision marshalled government departments, from education to foreign affairs to finance, to increase national capacity in this sector of the economy. The results are only now becoming apparent, as shown by the sensation of “Gangnam Style.” In its successful bid for the for the 2018 Winter Olympics, government, business and other groups worked together for more two decades, and through two failed bids.
The last lesson is that success depends on reacting quickly to developments. Twenty years ago, when China opened its doors to the outside, Korean firms were the first to take advantage from a billion more customers.
Korean manufacturers responded swiftly by sending their staff to China to supervise the newly opened plants. Korean students embraced learning Mandarin, in addition to English. In contrast, Japanese and other firms were hesitant, waiting to see if China would truly adopt a market economy. Not surprisingly, the firms moving first and fast obtained the best market share.
In the past two years, Korea has signed and implemented free trade agreements with the U.S. and the 27 countries of the European Union. Watching from the sidelines is not a good strategy in the fast-moving moving global economy.
Excerpted from an article by Thomas Klassen, an associate professor of political science at York University. He has lived, and taught at universities, in Korea and written extensively about the country.