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July 07, 2007



Scott, you have been on the yin and the yang tour of Asia. Korea is the yin to Japan’s yang.

Japanese culture is all about subtlety. In Japan, the presentation is as important as the substance. Politeness is an art form. Meals are to be savoured for their presentation as much as their taste. Korean culture, on the other hand, is brash and bold. Their cuisine is the Tex/Mex of Asia. There is less emphasis on presentation and more emphasis on bold flavor in Korean cuisine.

I love Korea, I love working in Korea. I call the Koreans the Americans of Asia. They have a can do attitude where everything has to be done yesterday. When you are on business in Japan you spend months planning and discussing – then you do. In Korea, you decide what you are going to do then do the planning later. Some of my best travel stories are from my experiences in Korea. I love the juxtaposition of the old and new (20 years ago it was much more stark – now it is mostly new with bits of the old) in Korea. I love the topography and the in your face feel of Seoul. I love how Seoul seems to spill around the mountains that envelop it. It is as if no obstacle is too great to overcome. There is a mountain in the way, no problem; build around it, under it, over it, through it. The place just seems to have a boundless energy.

I remember my first business trip to Seoul. I arrived on a Sunday night at about 9:00 pm. The people I was supposed to meet were at the airport to pick me up (unannounced). They insisted upon discussing business as soon as we got to my hotel that night. We met in the lobby until 11:00, they picked me up at 7:00 am the next morning and we worked until 10:00 the next evening. It was as if everything needed to be settled right there and then. It was in December (the winter after the Seoul Olympics). Our business partner had an office not far from the Olympic Park. After our lunch meeting we drove out to their offices in the worst traffic jam I have ever experienced. By the time we got there it was late afternoon (nearly 7:00pm), we climbed a rickety set of stairs over a Seven Eleven. We walked into this room on a bitterly cold winter evening and there was the entire staff sitting around an open gas heater with gloves on, working in the dim light of a single light bulb. It was like a scene out of a Dickens novel. I guess to compensate for the lack of heat in the office, on the two hour ride through yet another horrific traffic jam, they turned up the heat in the car so high I was certain I would suffer heat prostration long before we reached the hotel. After that long gruelling day, I stepped out of the car only to find a representative from another company waiting in the hotel lobby to meet with me (unannounced) to discuss taking the business from the company with whom I had just met. This would never happen in Japan.

Since that time I have watched with wonder as Korea has become progressively more wealthy with each passing year. Their achievements cannot be overstated. I stand in awe and deep respect. So much has been accomplished in Korea in so little time. Twenty years ago Korea was a poor Asian country aspiring to enter the world stage. Now it is one of the world’s richest countries with an electronic infrastructure far exceeding that of the US. After Australia, Korea is the world’s most connected country. From ox carts in the streets of Seoul to PDAs, Blackberrys and ipods in twenty years. Now that is a remarkable achievement.

The next time we are together remind me to tell you the storey of Richard Nixon, Carl Bildt, me, a bowl of spaghetti, and a Korean country and western band singing “My Cheating Heart.’

PS: I've eaten at that restaurant in Kyoto - very nice.

Mike Artherton

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