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The Obvious News and My Opinions on the Future

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Well first and foremost apologies for my blogging absence. Besides the baby news, the new Year is also bringing me a new job, a new city, and many other changes that will be discussed once I have my head wrapped around things.

That out of the way, time to repeat the big and obvious news I am sure you have heard before coming here…

From the CNN front page

Apparently he had a heart-attack on Saturday morning, after being weakened and fatigued by extensive travel over the past few days. I, amongst pretty much everyone on this side of the peninsula I’m sure, had an initial “Holy Shit” reaction, the military being put on emergency status as a precaution and the KOSPI taking a near 90 degree plunge down 5% (now recovering to around 3%). Although most would say Dear Leader has been looking better of late, there still was little question that he was not long for this world, so once the pure shock wore off, the reality set in that both sides have been prepared for this and the short term (at least through the official mourning period lasting until the 28th) we probably won’t see any major changes. What we are left with now is uncertainty, as no matter how prepared the governments could be for the death it’s impossible to know just what will happen from here. We’ll have a lot of opinions flying around in the days to weeks ahead, some educated and some not as much so. Here and now, I’ll give some of my brief thoughts (which admittedly likely lie within the latter category of opinions).

1. A sudden death was probably a good thing

One doesn’t have to reach very far to find evidence that Kim Jong-Il wasn’t exactly a sensible, reasonable person. Personally, I am happy that an unexpected heart attack took him from the mortal realm rather than drawn out disease. While it may not have been likely in the first place, it at the very least made certain a “blaze of glory” situation couldn’t happen where a death’s-door Kim ordered a massive attack as a final act. With, hopefully, more intact minds at the helm (with much more to lose) it lessens the possibility of rash action in my mind.

2. Tomorrow will be business as usual for most South Koreans

The president may still have a lot on his hands tomorrow, but for most Koreans, tomorrow will just be Tuesday. They may check the news sites or stock prices a tick more than usual, but otherwise they’ll be more worried about their Christmas plans than planning for an NK attack. One of the odd things about living in this country that you can’t really understand from the outside is that the general populous knows perfectly well that on any given day a shell could have dropped in Seoul and, for the most part, they know that nothing can be done about it so why think about it? This became really clear to me during the Yeongpyeong-do attack last year. Everybody at my work watched the news for an hour or so and when it became apparent the action was finished, went right back to making lesson plans.

3. It all comes down to China

But really, how is that different from any other day? Ever since the South began to take a hard-line stance during the LMB presidency, China has become the main (and near only) prop of the regime. The head of the regime may be gone, but I am certain the power players who make up the body knows just who really pays the bills and keeps them in their positions. I also have no doubt that the first call Saturday morning went to Beijing. The death doesn’t necessarily change the game, but it does force the hand a bit. Where and how China decides to exert pressure will shape the future of North Korea. Once again, that may be the same as any other day, but perhaps now the shaping will become a bit more direct and create some visible change.

One year later…

In all the uncertainty, I’ve been trying to picture North Korea on December 19th, 2012. First of all, there still will be a North Korea one year from today and the current power structures will be more or less intact. There will have been no large scale conflict and in fact both the outgoing GNP administration and the assume incoming leftist government have been pushing for more open relations and trade with the North, perhaps even a meeting with the Brilliant Comrade is being planned by some. So Kim Jong-un will be the leader of North Korea, but much more in name only as the actual power and decisions will be made up of his Aunt and Uncle as well as other key military and party leaders. By “actual power” I mean these people are where the puppet strings coming from China will be tied and from here will come greater emphasis on Chinese-style economic reforms. As discussed before these reforms have already started, but the speed and scope may widen considerably over the next year. Unmentioned so far are the 22 million people of North Korea, just where will they be? Unfortunately likely little will change for their lives. There will be no mass defections across the border, no uprising, no dancing in the street or toppling of statues. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a little more food in the pot and a bit more heat on during the cold December night. The greatest thing these people might have next year is a tiny bit of hope that things might be improving ever so slightly.

The funniest thing about all of this for me is simply the timing. We are less than two weeks shy of the new year, 2012, the centennial of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, the countries founder. For years Kim Jong Il has been propagating that this would be the year that North Korea would become a great nation, but now he himself couldn’t reach that day. No, North Korea won’t be a great nation in the coming year, but perhaps it will be a better one.

The official state broadcast

Happy 빼빼로 Day!

November 11, 2011 1 comment

Ah so it has come again, that most sacred and ancient of the traditional Korean holidays, Pepero Day. It is the day when the young and young at heart share thin, chocolate covered breadstick snacks with those they love, or like, or are casually acquainted with. The story goes that on some long past November 11th, some middle school girls in Busan exchanged boxes of 빼빼로 in the hopes that they could all be long and thin like pepero sticks (hopefully not as prone to snapping). They chose this day, because it was 11-11 and that looks like four snack sticks. That makes today especially special, or perhaps a sign of some sort of 빼빼로 Apocalypse, as it’s 11-11-11, a full third more stick-shaped numbers.

Anyways, to turn off the sarcasm, Pepero is made by the Lotte Company and may be better known to those in the States (at least those who go to World Market) by the Japanese product it copied, Pocky. I somewhat doubt the origin story of the “holiday”, as I heard similar references in Japan to Osaka middle school girls giving each other Pocky to be tall and thin, I will say the Lotte Company has done an amazing job marketing it strongly into the cultural consciousness of people. Rather than deny that they contrived the holiday, they should be proud of their gimmick turning into a full-fledged national event. I’m happy enough for it as it means that I have eaten several boxes of the snack over my life here in Korea without actually having to ever purchase any (they go relatively well with coffee).

In fact, the holiday has worked so well, that there’s even a social campaign not to eliminate it, but share it with a (supposedly) healthier alternative 가래떡 (Garaetteok) Day. Personally I am all for that as roasted 가래떡 is incredibly delicious for something that really has no flavor of its own and I am a well known lover of 떡볶이 (tteokbokki). So feel free to pick your poison, just honor the day somehow with some long, cylindrical food.

 

Quick Hits: 수능 D-Day, Stupid Foreigner Crimes and Painful Protests

November 10, 2011 1 comment

To begin with an FYI, I have put in a final copy of my previous blog post “The Pitfalls of Half-Price Tuition” and it should eventually wind up at least over at Korea Business Central’s great “Economic Slice 2011” series (and perhaps publication in other sources, but no for sure word on that). For now, here’s what has my interest this days:

Educational Thunderdome, 690,000 students enter – 690,000 leave…emotionally and mentally wrecked

Kpop star 지영 of KARA heads into the test, unfortunately booty dancing is not one of the electives

Well for over half a million young people, this is likely the most important day of their young lives, one that has been circled in their parents mind since the day they were born. Today an estimated 690,000 third year (senior) high school students will file into classrooms around the country to take the 대학수학능력시험 (College Scholastic Ability Test) and the exam forms they fill out over the next 7 hours will play a large role in the course of their adult lives. Essentially the countless hours of 학원 work, endless cram sessions and rote learning has been to get them to this point and any hopes of getting into a decent University (and job afterwards) rests almost entirely on the unforgiving examination. The pressure and weight placed on this exam can be clearly seen by the lengths the country goes to accommodate it. All government offices and banks didn’t open until 10am today to try to prevent traffic jams making students late to the exam and nearly the nations entire police force is out on the street and giving escorts to students, making sure they arrive on time. Additionally, last night was one of the busiest nights of the year for churches and temples as parents and family came to pray for good scores. So severe is the security of the test that the professors and teachers who wrote the questions will spend the day locked in a hotel room literally and technologically blacked out from the outside world.

Given what I have written previously, my feelings about this test and the educational system that revolves around it should be fairly clear and I won’t take the time to expand on them now. I’ll just say for now, good luck to all these young men and women. Regardless of what happens, they should walk out of the test with their heads held high as simply running the gauntlet of the Korean education system is an accomplishment in and of itself.

Two Foreigners, Two Crimes, Two Idiots

Artist depiction of an NSET enjoying a completely unheard of new drug

Not one, but two wayguk crimes have been reported in the past week that caught my attention. The first seems to happen every year, more or less, a teacher thinking they can be sneaky and just mail themselves illegal drugs. As you can read over at Gusts of Popular Feeling, Busan Ilbo and later Yonhap have reported that a Canadian ESL instructor was busted for shipping a package of drugs from back home to himself at school at the end of summer break. What’s interesting about this case is how the reports have described the substance as a “new kind of drug” – Hashish. I guess the media has a fairly short-term memory for this sort of thing as it was the same stuff that the infamous criminal mastermind Cullen Thomas was caught with a kilo of that he tried to send through international mail. Really, this is just more proof to point what K-bloggers have been saying since the beginning of time, if you really can’t go without using drugs, don’t come to teach in Korea. I have nothing against anyone who just wants to have a bit of harmless fun, but Korea does and I promise you are not likely smart enough to get away with it. Please take this story and all the others of people doing the EXACT SAME THING repeatedly as a warning and not an idea that you’re clever enough to get away with by putting the drugs in a cake or something.

The second crime that caught my attention was down in Jeju. The protests against the currently being constructed Naval base in Gangjeong have gone international (likely due to stories like this) and American Matthew Hoey was arrested last week for sneaking into the site and damaging construction equipment. According to reports, Hoey is a coordinator for the Save Jeju Island campaign, the minds behind this wonderful website, brimming with half-truths, baseless rumors and photos of little children who will obviously be blown to smithereens if this base is allowed. While I can agree that the government should have been a little more sensitive to location concerns, is too late for that now and the themes of the current protest (it will start an arms race, the US puppet masters are behind it, etc.) are complete nonsense. Like Hawaii for the US, Jeju is the best location for Korea to center its naval forces and protect its interests. These interests go far beyond simply North Korea and include the ROK’s very active role in piracy prevention, increased humanitarian efforts and yes, as a check against China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the Asian waters. Outside of agreeing that its probably a good idea, the US has no part in this equation what-so-ever and I strongly doubt that any American ships will ever call the base their home. Just some things to consider in case you were thinking about climbing barbed-wire fences with your bare hands and tear apart some hydraulics for yourself.

In some cultures its considered lucky to cut off your pinky twice, right?

As proof that South Korea needs absolutely no outside assistance in crazy protests, we have this story of a South Korean man who has been arrested for mailing a piece of his severed pinky to the Japanese Embassy after cutting it off himself (twice). According to this updated piece from Yonhap, the man named as Choi first cut off the little guy in April at a demonstration in from of the Embassy. After going through the trouble of having it stitched back on, Choi again nipped it off the very next month. Having been told by doctors that they couldn’t do the surgery again (my guess is they saw the pattern), this incredibly reasonable man did the only sane thing, putting the rotting bit of flesh and bone in a package and sending it out with the morning mail. Apparently doing such is illegal in this country (who knew?) and Choi has been arrested, although he now has a great conversation starter for the rest of his life. If you’re curious as to what spurred on this unusual form of protest, I’ll give you a hint in a fictitious quote I’d like to imagine Choi screaming as he was hauled away:

You may take our pinkies, but you’ll never take OUR ROCKY OUTCROPPINGS!

KORUS FTA Fight Night: Only on Pay-Per-View

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

In US politics, “pushing through” a bill, “clearing the obstacles” and “holding up” passage tend to be figurative speech, showing the difficulties of negotiation by alluding to physical confrontation. Even casual political watchers in South Korea, however, know such phrases can be taken quite literally here. In what I would consider the pre-fight weigh-in dramatics for the KORUS FTA passage, last night opposition lawmakers physically occupied the foreign affairs committee chambers, preventing GNP members from holding a meeting on the topic.

Rep. Nam also announced that the GNP entrance music for the next session would be LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out", replacing "We are the Champions" that has been used since '02

“I am not going to push anymore to hold a session today.” said translated comments of Rep. Nam Kyung-pil, the committee chair and he absolutely meant it, as for hours ruling party politicians were trying to jostle their way into the packed room. This is not the first time attempted meetings of the committee have been disturbed as previously opposition sat in the actual chair of the Chairman, refusing to move and preventing him from officially beginning proceedings. All this is happening despite party leaders on both sides already having agreed on several concessions and compromises, but not enough for many in the opposition who still feel the agreement still too strongly favors the US. Now, with the ruling party seemingly unwilling to bend further, it seems the stage is set for physical confrontations on the National Assembly floor.

Of course such scuffles are nothing new in South Korean politics and this particular event is downright tame compared to what happened when the FTA was being ratified back in 2008. Back then, opposition lawmakers showed up at the parliamentary committee’s door with a sledgehammer, crowbars and of course a full media entourage. After managing to break in the door, they were met with fire extinguishers from the ruling party inside. Fistfights erupted in the chaos, all under the eyes of news cameras and resulted in national embarrassment that only seems to last until it happens again the next year.

Now from an American perspective, this all seems pretty unimaginable, as ever since dueling pistols went out of fashion, the biggest threat on our Capitol Hill is having to listen to someone talk for a really, really long time. Personally, however, I try not to be too judgmental and in fact would occasionally prefer physical action over how our politicians tend to fight.

Also I think it is important to add a bit of historical context as a possible source of these confrontations. With the 빨리 빨리 true democratization of South Korea, it’s easy to forget that within a generation, Koreans did literally have to fight and die for the right to have their voice heard (the Gwangju Massacre was a mere 31 years ago after all, 광주 민주화 운동). While the issues today are petty by comparison, I can understand the willingness (and perhaps expectation) of politicians to physically prove their dedication to a cause. Similar to how the Korean protest culture has evolved, this is first and foremost a show to draw attention and rally support. In the end, I don’t think any of these lawmakers expect to prevent the passage of the FTA through these demonstrations (especially now that party leaders have made agreements) but rather want to show their supports, peers and string-pulling seniors that the literally fought the issue without giving in.

They Just Can’t Stand the Sweet, Sweet Taste of Freedom…and marshmallow cream

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Oozing with Capitalism...and marshmallow cream

Word comes from Yonhap that the Kaesong Industrial Complex is under threat by outrageous workers demands, to replace the currently provided Choco Pies as snacks with cold, hard cash (which may have better nutritional value anyways) or perhaps instant noodles (which most certainly does not). Of course the authorities can see these demands are not truly from the workers, but rather with the strings being pulled by the heartless North Korean regime who fear the spread of capitalistic ideals through mass-produced snack cakes. Turns out up to 10 pies a day are given out to workers (with up to 6 million being delivered to the complex each month) and some of the South Korean labeled sweets are finding their way to high prices on the black market. Some observers go so far to claim that the Choco Pie has become a symbol of the success and prosperity of the South, something the media has termed a “Choco Pie Revolution”. Undoubtedly fearing the spread of such ideas, Pyongyang recently failed to respond to an offer of millions of dollars in flood aid from Seoul, in apparent protest of the massive amount of choco pies that would be included thus heading off the possibility of a “Choco Fall” of riots demanding democracy (or a glass of milk). Managers at the complex have obviously come to understand the power of social change within the confections, as they denied the request for change.

So if it wasn’t obvious, I feel Yonhap might be giving the power of the Choco Pie a bit too much credit. While the little cakes are a nice snack, I don’t see the masses flying banners of empty snack wrappers invading the capital anytime soon. Really this story is nothing new, just a continuation of ongoing thread of chocolate-covered capitalism slowly taking over the North (see this Marmot post from 2009). The problem I personally have with this train of thought is that it’s not average Nork that is consuming the pies (among other SK goods) but rather the upper-crust who are likely well aware of their country’s failings, but unwilling to risk losing there place in it. If a Choco Pie goes for nearly $10 on the black market, as the media has claimed, I doubt the common man is giving up a couple days income for the privilege of eating one.

Of course no mention of North Korea and Choco Pies would be complete without looking back to the 2000 Chan-Wook Park domestic blockbuster 공동경비구역 JSA (Joint Security Area) and one of the better scenes from that film (not quite a classic, but well worth a viewing). In it, the unlikely group of North and South soldiers are having a friendly hangout in the former’s sentry post with DPRK Army Sergeant Oh (Kang-ho Song) happily stuffs his face with a Choco Pie while bemoaning the inability of his nation to produce such a treat. This leads his Southern counterpart Sgt. Lee (Byung-hun Lee) to suggest he defect and eat all the cakes he wanted. The first broach of this taboo subject causes the suddenly silent Oh to indignantly spit the mashed up pie into his hand and loudly proclaim his dream to one day see his great land produce a confection of such high quality, before returning the mass of chocolate and marshmallow to his mouth. The scene really sets the tone for what is off-limits in the unusual relationship being forged between the soldiers which has further meaning later on. Most likely anyone who even watched the film even in passing had this highlight stick with him, so perhaps this is the source of the “Choco Pies of freedom” meme. Just as the snack failed to pull the soldier across the border, however, so to is it unlikely to really cause fear in North Korean leadership.

This Wave Probably Won’t Crash American Shores

October 19, 2011 3 comments

Here’s the latest effort from Girls’ Generation (all English version):

So the Korean version is an uninspired, if decent enough Kpop example and an interesting break from the former SNSD image. The English track? Cringe-worthy (I did actually cringe with each “Girls’ Generation make you feel DA heat). I’m sure the ladies put a lot of effort in getting the words down (probably much more work than it takes for a Korean song) but in the end, like most English Kpop efforts, it just doesn’t work. Quite frankly, the worldwide Kpop fans out there are listening to the music for the words, but instead the polished production, dance moves and style that has been discussed on this blog before. If they really want to know what’s being sung they’ll simply look up a translation, trying to shoe-horn in a completely different language than the song was written for really just makes it worse. Let’s look at some examples:

Call an emergency
I’m watching the phone ring
I’m feeling this in my heart~ my heart~

I think Seohyun might require some medical attention (probably due to undereating)

Wanna know my secrets
From them I’ll never tell
‘Cause I got them magic
Touch them
Imma try and I fail
That’s right

Well at least Jessica was honest about the failing part…

All the boys want my heart
Better know how to rock in their stop

I seriously hope I am wrong on this lyric, “rock in their stop” what is that? It’s what I hear and all unofficial sources have the same right now. I guess I won’t be getting Hyoyeon‘s heart since I most certainly don’t know how to complete the required task.

It’s great for the international appeal of Kpop if the artists can speak and interact with their fans in English (or Chinese or Japanese, really any native tongues) but trying to perform in a second language tends to end up incredibly difficult and just an all around bad idea. I also hope this isn’t a prelude to a Wonder Girls style attempted Western expansion, as really such an effort isn’t good for anyone. I don’t want to seem to cynical as I can appreciate the ladies as great performers and sort of the mastheads of the current Kpop generation, but really don’t see this going anywhere good.

Innovation and Korean Business – The could be’s, would be’s and should be’s

October 11, 2011 2 comments

With the death of Steve Jobs last week came an incredible outpouring of support and remembrance from around the world. From my perspective, a surprising amount of this came from South Korea, a place where the man’s products were late to the game and recently have had an increasingly contentious relationship with Korea’s flagship company. I can understand this, however, as even though I’ve never been an Apple person, I can recognize Jobs as a true innovator and the driving force behind game-changing products that have helped define both modern markets and our modern lives. In addition to honoring and memorializing the departed, many of the words spoken and written have had a decidedly introspective tone:

Can Korea Nurture its own Steve Jobs? (Chosun Ilbo Editorial 10/8)

Is Chris Bangle Samsung’s Steve Jobs? (WSJ Korea Real Time 10/7)

‘Creative Korea’ in the future (Korea Herald 10/6, effect of the news on a design conference)

‘Innovation’ had been a key word amongst Korean businesses for a while now, but is reaching fevered pitch these days. The common meme being that Korea needs to foster creative people and organizations to remain relevant in the future. While this theme is certainly not unique in international business, the notable rigid Korean organizational structure makes the comparisons particularly stark here. In my business English classes, it is a frequent point of discussion as “how” Korean companies can make this transition. Most, if not all, of the classes are able to recite off the usual business buzz phrases considered solutions, such as going “outside the box”, having “horizontal integration”, etc. However, when I ask for detail and explanation into these ideas the room tends to go silent. It seems that while the buzz has entrenched itself here, the processes (and problems of integrating these ‘Western’ thoughts into ‘Eastern’ organizations) seem out of reach. While I can’t claim to have the perfect solutions, it’s still important to ask the questions and start the conversation. Namely, how can Korea start the process of nurturing innovative organizations? Also, and perhaps more importantly, is doing so really necessary (or advisable) for Korean businesses?

Beginning at the beginning

First and foremost, organizations are made of people and people tend to be a reflection of the culture and society they grew in. A primary reason for why innovation seems so far out of reach for Korean organizations could be because the traits necessary for it (i.e. creativity, free-thought, experimentation) aren’t strongly developed in the young. To visualize this, I simply look to the education system (note: my personal experiences working within the Korean public education system leaves me with a tendency to rant on the subject, so I’ll try to control that). While there is plenty to like about education here, mostly the work ethic of its students, without question the unforgiving, test-focused measurements impedes growth in more subjective areas. This is not to say there are no creative, innovative Korean people, as there most certainly are, but rather they were created more in spite of the culture than with its support and many cite outside influences as key to their development.

Future archeologists will undoubtedly debate its purpose...if any still exist

A common attribute of those considered ‘great minds’ such as jobs (or historical figures like Einstein and Edison), is that they failed, a lot. Their path to success tended to be littered with false starts, bad ideas and poor decisions. For every light bulb there were plenty of kenetophones, or in modern terms, for every iPad there were plenty of NeXTcubes.

I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. Thomas Edison.

In the West, stories of monumental failure leading to ultimate success are common. They are told to children to encourage the “get back on the horse” mentality that is common to the culture. This stands in contrast to what exists in Korea, something cultural anthropologists call a “shame society”. In short, such cultures use shame and the threat of being ostracized as a form of social control. While the real existence of this in Eastern cultures is argued, there certainly are plenty of evidence to suggest its existence in Korea (such as the high suicide rate discussed before). As to how such a societal structure affects business innovation, I personally can see two major obstacles. First, shame or “saving face” adds additional costs to failure and therefor encourages playing it safe and not taking risks. Second, by placing such high value on belonging and acceptance, standing out (especially in non-academic ways) is a scary prospect, as even elevation in status separates you from the whole.

To recap far too many words, it’s probably suffice just to say to become ‘innovative’, Korea (as a society) would require great amounts of cultural change going far beyond the board room, but into the classroom and the home. I’m sorry for you readers who read through everything else just to get to this point, especially because it’s likely not the most important question. As stated way back at the beginning, that question is this really necessary (or advisable) for Korean businesses?

Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses

To give credit where its due, my inspiration for this post began with a discussion over on Korea Business Central, asking the question if Korea can design a brand that is “distinctly Korean”, (an extension of a Korea Herald interview with brand consultant Martin Lindstrum). Over there, I made the argument that  Korea’s recent history and tremendous economic growth is strongly tied to its decades of authoritarian rule. The powers of this time pushed growth and quantity above all else, making fast and cheap the names of the game. While this time (for the most part) has passed thoughts and images still remain (anybody want a 1986 Hyundai Excel?).

While some of these ideas are no longer applicable, many have simply evolved with Korean society, such as it being better to copy rather than create. When I say “copy”, I don’t wish to compare Korea to the Chinese firm manufacturing $100 jPads, but rather note that, especially in recent times, their strength does not lie in taking the giant leaps, but rather in the little steps between. Put frankly, if all companies were innovators, we’d have a ton of fancy new products (that don’t quite work properly). While it’s commendable to be on the cutting edge, taking and improving on the ideas of others can be a very good recipe for success. While my Western perspective initially lead me to argue that Korea companies need to be more innovative and begin the cultural changes necessary, further discussion and reflection makes me realize that it’s not the only way. For an example, let’s look at K-Pop music.

While a lot of the national hype about its growth is just hype, it is very true that there is an emerging international interest and appeal far beyond the size of the country producing it. This interest likely isn’t due to the creativity or uniqueness of the product (as really, no pop music stone is left unturned in the industry, including disco), but rather that it takes what has been done before and presents it in a highly polished, easily digestible package for the masses. The boys and girls on stage are highly trained, hard working and incredibly talented, not in the sense of writing words and making music, but instead at making something the masses want to consume. More than music, K-pop is a product, an increasingly successful one, that proves it doesn’t have to be original if it good and easily accessible. Really, in the end, Korean companies can continue to follow this model, grow and continue to be successful, as it fits within the current structures of society, ones that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to change. Perhaps the “Korean Steve Jobs” will come, but they undoubtedly will be, and probably should be, the exception rather than the rule. So, at least for today, I have to leave it with the belief that for Korean business to keep moving forward, they’re best left following, but just doing it better than those in the lead.