As I board the plane to JFK, I can’t help but reflect on the last week and everything that I learned about this warm, humble, dynamic country. Here are my top ten reflections from our time abroad:
1. South Korea has come a truly remarkable way in the last fifty years. During the Korean War in the 1950s, much of South Korea was destroyed. Now, less than a century later, an extremely urbanized and industrialized Seoul houses about half of the total South Korean population. It’s incredible to look at the Seoul skyline and remember that very few of these buildings existed when our parents were born.
2. South Korea’s corporate landscape is dominated by chaebol, multi-vertical conglomerates that control almost every major industry in the country. There’s nothing like Lotte in the United States. Lotte, which is the 5th largest conglomerate in Korea, holds the highest market share across all its core business areas: food, retail, chemical, and hospitality. Picture CVS, 7-11, Forever 21, The Gap, 3M, Marriott, and Starwood all operated by one parent company—that’s Lotte. Oh, and Lotte owns the equivalent of SeaWorld and Disney World too (there is a full aquarium in the Lotte World Tower and an amusement park next door). It’s a corporate structure that could never exist in the United States due to our pro-competition, anti-trust laws, but it’s the way of doing things in Korea. The five major chaebols—Hyundai, Samsung, LG, SK, and Lotte—control pretty much every major industry in the country and competition is essentially impossible due to government support and intervention.
3. The intersection of digital and big data will define the future of South Korea’s corporate strategy. At our visit to Samsung Innovation Museum, we watched a video of Samsung’s vision for the future. It showed a ten-year-old child scaling cliffs in Alaska while her father received updates about her health and wellness from his bathroom mirror. A few days later, at Lotte, we watched a similar video highlighting Lotte’s “Lifetime Value Creation.” In this vision for the future, we saw a couple experience auto facial recognition while checking into a hotel, automatically proportioned meals, and on-demand rental cars and bike shares. One quote from Lotte’s video summed up the visions particularly well: “From the moment you wake up in the morning, you are surrounded by Lotte.” Frankly, it was a tad dystopian in nature, and left all of us wondering about the pros and cons of excessive corporate access to and use of personal data.
4. The desire for innovation and start-up culture is thriving in South Korea across both corporate and social sectors. On Monday, we visited Hanwha’s DreamPlus Center, the Fintech accelerator of the life insurance conglomerate. On Thursday, we visited Hyundai Genesis, the company’s first luxury vehicle and first new brand in about fifteen years. That afternoon, we visited Heyground, a co-working space for social entrepreneurship founded by CBS classmate Kyungsun Chung. Across each visit, we saw an unprecedented desire for South Korean companies to be at the forefront of innovation, both in South Korea and across the globe.
5. The current threat of North Korea, as well as the tragedy of the Korean War, is present in the minds of the South Korean people. On Wednesday, we visited the Korean War Memorial and paused to remember the 30,000 Americans and 100,000 Koreans who lost their lives in the conflict. Then, on Friday, we traveled two hours to the demilitarized zone of the North Korean border and met with a North Korean defector who escaped the country through China, leaving her son behind. It was powerful to hear her story of oppression and perseverance and we all left the visit feeling extremely thankful for the rights and opportunities we possess in the United States. We also had the opportunity to travel 300ft below ground into one of the tunnels that North Korea built in preparation for an attack on South Korea, even after nonaggression agreements were signed. Four of these tunnels have been discovered, but it’s estimated that up to sixteen of them are still undiscovered. Finally, we went to a lookout point and looked across to North Korea through telescopes.
6. The South Korean people we met were extremely humble and generous. At each corporate visit, we were greeted by company leaders who expressed their honor at being able to address students from Columbia Business School. We were all a bit surprised at how impressed they were by us! Moreover, we left every company visit with our arms filled with gifts. At Samsung, we were given mousepads with our group picture painted on them. At Lotte, we were given empty paper bags and asked to fill them with Korean snacks, candies, chocolate, and beer. It was a very unique experience and not one we are used to back in the United States.
7. We love Korean food! Bring on the kimchi, bibimbap, and red bean paste. We had the best time getting to live on spicy Korean dishes for the week. A few times, we especially appreciated the 24-hour Korean spots around the corner after enjoying Korean nightlife 🙂
Lindy Gould (’19) is an MBA candidate at Columbia Business School.