Friday, January 29, 2010

2010 Korea-America Student Conference


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Move to halt South Korea's education arms race

In a good many Korean schools it is perfectly acceptable for students to fall asleep at their desks and snooze through an entire morning of lessons. In some, it is actively encouraged.

This latitude is born not of negligence but of concern. For the state-school teachers know exactly where the children’s chronic fatigue was nurtured: in the madness of a parental arms race that has made a fetish of private cramming schools and pushed mainstream education close to dysfunction.

What the country needs — urgently, say some — is essay questions.

South Korean education is what happens when meritocracies and one-upmanship go berserk. Two monsters loom over the exhausted children of Seoul and the country’s other big cities.

On one side is a country straining to compete at a national level with the Asian titans of China and Japan: it is an economy where good jobs are getting more scarce and where educational accomplishment translates closely to social heft and long-term financial success.

On the other is an army of parents and grandparents with the cash and ambition to buy their descendants any small advantage in the great educational struggle. Children’s evenings and weekends are viewed as a resource to be tapped to breaking point; sleep is viewed — in the most extreme quarters — as weakness.

The undoubted beneficiaries of this arms race are the hagwons – private education institutes that prepare all ages of Korean children for the cavalry charge of exams that thunder down on them from the day they enter elementary school to the time they sit university entrance tests. South Korean parents spend fortunes sending their children to these schools, which has created a separate arms race. Parents send children to good hagwons to improve their chances of getting into even better hagwons that will in turn improve their chances of getting into better private schools and colleges.

Britain engaged in passionate national debate over whether to extend licensing laws to keep pubs open beyond 11pm. In Korea, a similar swell of emotion surrounded the question of whether hagwons should be allowed to stay open beyond 10pm. The late-opening proponents won; defenders of sleep lost.

Revolution may be around the corner, however, and it is starting to terrify parents everywhere. Beyond the punishing demands on children, one of the perceived flaws with Korean education is the rigid nature of the examinations: almost every subject is tested via questions that demand prodigious memorising and binary right/wrong answers.

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education has announced that it plans to make essay-style questions mandatory. It has two reasons for switching to this policy. The first is the belief that essays questions will prod Korean education out of its emphasis on rote learning. Essays, said a senior official, are needed to “create innovative minds” and test students’ ability to formulate arguments.

For a country eager to secure its future as a cutting-edge producer of electronics, biotechnology and engineering, that argument reflects national concerns that the country must do something to preserve its technological cushion.

The second, more tantalising, theory is that essays could break the spell of the hagwons. Essays are intrinsically harder to train for, definitely harder for hagwon teachers to predict and specifically outside the current teaching expertise of the cram schools. If the theory is correct, essays could be the secret of a good night’s sleep.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Korean Food and Culture in New York City

Located on 32nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, New York`s "Korea Way" is the center for Korean cuisine, shopping and culture.

Though only one block long, the street adjacent to such tourist attractions as Madison Square Center, Herald Square and the Empire State Building features almost every aspect of modern-day Korean life, from Korean banks to "noraebang."

Until about 10 years ago, the street at the center of midtown Manhattan was not even as globalized as Seoul`s Itaewon area, as this bustling street didn`t attract many non-Korean New Yorkers. Recently, though, the street has been changing as an increasing number of ethnic non-Koreans are frequenting due to heightened interest in Korean culture, especially the food.

In fact, quite a few of Wall Street`s young financiers have their hangouts in "K-town." Walking along the street in the evening, it is easy to spot all sorts of folks in Korean restaurants chatting with their friends over glasses of Korean liquor.

"About half of our customers are non-Koreans. Although Chinese and Japanese customers account for much of the foreign customers still, I see more and more Americans come here recently," said Cho Min-chul, the manager of Gahm Mi Ok Korean restaurant at the entrance of the Korea Way.

Cho, who has been working for the well-known "seolleongtang" place for the past four years, said such changes are thanks to the continuous efforts by the Korean community in the Big Apple to make the country`s culture better known in the world`s hub for business, fashion, and the arts.

Every year, the association of Korean residents in New York City hosts the "Korean Parade and Festival," featuring floats, marching bands, Korean traditional dances and costume parades.

Cho said that there are other reasons. "Korean restaurants are known for quick service and good food. And they open until very late," he said.

Sometimes, quick service leaves customers with an impression that Korean food is slightly overpriced. "The food was great but I wish it was cheaper," said an American customer who introduced herself as Elizabeth, after finishing a bowl of bibimbap at the restaurant.

Though Gahm Mi Ok is best-known for seolleongtang among the city`s Koreans, Westerners rarely order the Korean delicacy. "It seems like they (Westerners) don`t like the idea of pouring a bowl of rice into the soup at all, with an exception of Russians who have similar recipes," Cho said.

Instead, a dish like bibimbap is much more popular among Americans who come to the restaurant. "I love it. It is yummy with good nutritional balance," said Elizabeth, a professional model who lives in New York`s Chinatown.

If Korean pop culture has contributed much to the increased popularity of Korean cuisine in Japan, it was Korean companies and business figures that have been behind the rapidly enhanced interest in Korean restaurants in Manhattan.

"There are almost no global companies based in New York that have no connection with a Korean company," said David Oh, general manager of Bann Korean restaurant, which is on the West 50th Street, near Broadway`s theater district.

At first sight, the restaurant looked different from other restaurants on the Korean street. With somewhat artful, vintage-style decor, it looks as if it was the kind of place where diners want to ask for a menu to see if it was within their lunch budget.

Inside, the hall is fairly open, tall and generally spacious. Each dining table is equipped with a grill, but, unlike that of many Korean barbeque places in Seoul, it is designed not to produce smoke while preparing "bulgogi" and other barbeque dishes, offering a more pleasant environment to eat and unwind.

"Many Americans are not accustomed to the self-preparing concept of Korean grills, so we ask beforehand if they want us to cook meat or if they want to do it themselves in the Korean style," Oh said.

Choi Young-sook, the owner of the restaurant, also runs three "Woo Lae Oak" Korean restaurants in the United States.

Opened first in the Los Angeles Korea town in the late `80s, Woo Lae Oak has taken the lead in enhancing the image of Korean restaurants by purusing a more refined atmosphere and service.

Among the customers of Woo Lae Oak`s New York branch located in SoHo, the stylish lower Manhattan neighborhood, are Hollywood celebrities including Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves, as well as Rupert Murdoch, President and Chairman of News Corporation, who used to live near the restaurant.

When opening Bann, Choi intended to make Korean cuisine more accessible to New Yorkers, and thus came up with the name meaning "steamed rice," which is easy to pronounce and remember.

"I was shocked to hear a loyal customer of Woo Lae Oak in L.A. pronounce the name wrong," Choi told reporters when she visited Seoul last October.

Despite the comparatively short history, Bann is not far behind Woo Lae Oak restaurants in popularity. Although the former targets more of ethnic Korean customers, about 70 percent of its customers are non-Koreans.

Oh said that a large portion of the customers at the five-year-old Bann are either those who have reservations at nearby Broadway theaters for evening shows or high-salaried professionals from law firms and financial institutes around it.

"Pop stars such as Mariah Carey and Beyonce once came to have dinner here. But whoever comes here, we treat them the same as our famous customers," said Oh, who was also involved in Woo Lae Oak `s SoHo project as manager.

Oh left Seoul to settle in New York in 1976. He said that he was disappointed to see there were no Korean restaurant in SoHo, a thriving magnet for young expats, tourists and locals in search of a good party and the latest fashion trend. "There were Thai restaurants and sushi bars but no Korean restaurants, and as a food enthusiast, I took it serious enough to join the project," he said.

Besides Bann and Woo Lae Oak, more and more Korean restaurants have opened up in Manhattan, outside Korea town yet the future does not seem to be very optimistic.

"Running a Korean restaurant outside Korea town is not easy because one has to satisfy two very conflicting tastes at the same time. While Americans prefer Korean dishes with a mild taste and smell, Koreans like to have Korean food with maximum authenticity," he said.

Considering Korea`s overall position in the global business scene, Korean food is not very well-positioned in North America yet. According to a recent survey by Accenture, an Ireland-based global management consulting firm, Korean food ranked eighth in popularity among the food of 11 different countries (in China, on the other hand, Korean food was the most favored foreign cuisine in the same survey).

"Korean restaurants need to focus more on promoting the healthiness of Korean cuisine, giving up on the value for money approach," Oh said. "There are also things Korean restaurants in New York should work together for, such as unifying the spelling of the names of Korean foods on each of their menus."

By Lee Yong-sung/Korea Herald correspondent


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Can South Korea become a respected global power?

Selling South Korea
Lee Myung-bak wants to move his country to the center of the world.

Published Jan 16, 2010

From the magazine issue dated Jan 25, 2010

For the first time in modern history, South Korea is laying claim to lead the club of rich nations. South Korea became the first member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—the group of 30 wealthy nations—to emerge from the global recession when it recorded 0.4 percent growth in the third quarter of last year. This year the OECD expects South Korea's GDP to expand by 4.4 percent, the highest growth rate of any of its members.

Now President Lee Myung-bak wants to turn the end of the economic crisis into an opportunity. He knows the crash has accelerated the decline of American might, as well as the rise of China and other emerging powers, and he aims to exploit the gap between them. His goal is to transform South Korea from a successful but self-involved economic power into a respected global soft power with the clout to mediate between rich and poor nations on global issues such as climate change and financial regulation. In particular, Lee is pushing to revive momentum on a global free-trade deal—stalled in large part due to hostility from poor nations—while defending the poor by pushing for more international supervision of the global financial system. At the same time, he is trying to establish South Korea as a leader in the fight against global warming by agreeing that the country will cut emissions by 30 percent by 2020—one of the most aggressive targets in the world—even though it is not obligated to do so because it is still considered a developing nation under the Kyoto Protocol. To many in South Korea, the selection of Seoul as the site of the November 2010 summit of the G20—the group of 20 leading economic powers—was an acknowledgment of how well it has managed the current economic and environmental crises. "The old order is being dismantled and replaced by the new order," Lee said from the Blue House in a televised New Year's speech. "We have to make our vision the world's vision."

Lee is one of only two former CEOs to lead a major trading power—Italy's Silvio Berlusconi is the other—and he runs South Korea like the just-do-it boss he was at Hyundai, where staff called him "the Bulldozer." At Hyundai he led a company known for fearless forays into foreign markets, whether it was building huge bridges in Malaysia or selling cars with stunning success in the crowded U.S. market. Now he is trying to make South Korean culture—still on the defensive after a long history of colonial occupations—as cosmopolitan as Hyundai's culture. He's pushing for greater use of English and generally trying to open up South Korea to the world. In his first big political job, as mayor of Seoul, he created a huge ruckus when he ripped up the downtown to expose a boarded-up stream—but it is now a major draw for commerce and tourism. Lee's grand domestic ambition as president is a multibillion-dollar plan to refurbish South Korea's four major rivers despite protests from environmentalists and opposition members. Lee believes the project will boost local economies by creating jobs and promoting tourism and commerce. Lee's popularity ratings, after an early plummet driven by a decision to allow U.S. imports of beef, are now at more than 50 percent as voters warm to his vision of newly developed South Korea as a model nation to be emulated by many developing countries.

South Korea's successful management of the economic crisis surely helps. Early on, the country was battered like the rest of the world. The South Korean won dropped 30 percent in the first three months of the crisis, the stock market dropped by half, and foreign investors left in droves. But unlike most other rich nations, South Korea had recent experience with a major financial meltdown. Many of its current leaders are veterans of the Asian crisis that crippled the country's economy in 1998, and they knew how to manage a free fall. Lee's team immediately moved to save threatened banks and companies by setting up $200 billion in various funds to guarantee payment of their debts and for other forms of emergency aid. They struck currency-swap deals with major economies like the U.S. to secure dwindling reserves of foreign currency and front-loaded public spending so that 65 percent of the country's $250 billion budget was spent during the first half of 2009, ensuring that the money got into the economy rapidly—but without adding new debts. A government focus on protecting jobs kept consumer sentiment relatively high, and the Bank of Korea cut interest rates by 3.25 percentage points to 2 percent, a historic low.

All the while, Lee worked relentlessly to quiet calls for protectionism at home and abroad, at a time when many other leaders, including Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, were beginning to succumb. Lee's administration is pushing for a slew of free-trade agreements with the U.S., the European Union, Peru, Colombia, Canada, Australia, and even China and Japan, if possible, says Abraham Kim, a Korea analyst at the political-risk consultancy Eurasia Group. Lee also lobbied hard at the Pittsburgh meeting of the G20 last year to have Seoul selected as the site of the next summit this autumn, an event he hopes to organize as a coming-out party. "He is trying to use the crisis to enhance the reputation of South Korea and help it to be widely recognized as a developed-world state," says Kim. "This is partly a nationalism thing, but more importantly, they are trying to get out from under Japan's and China's shadow. South Korea needs to find its niche for its long-term competitive survival."

South Korea was further protected from the crisis because its economy was built on pillars other than the collapsing financial-services industry. Decades of government efforts to nurture globally competitive conglomerates through massive infusion of capital had helped build export machines like Samsung, Hyundai, and LG. As the crisis unfolded, the weakening currency allowed these companies to expand global market share, especially against key Japanese and other rich-world competitors. As a result, South Korea registered a record trade surplus of $41 billion last year, surpassing that of Japan for the first time. South Korean companies and banks were also ready to compete because the crisis of the 1990s had forced them to improve corporate governance, get their finances in order, and invest heavily in new technology. "We just had to dust off the old measures we used a decade ago and use them again," says Vice Finance Minister Hur Kyung-wook.

In short, the South Korean model is a more mature cousin of China's—a hybrid economy, part free market, part state-controlled—but with more freedom for the market and for political dissent. Now Lee is positioning South Korea within Asia as a dynamic alternative to both China's mighty command economy and Japan's no-growth economy. In Southeast Asia, South Korea has long been admired for completing an economic miracle in just one generation, moving its 48 million people out of poverty and entering the ranks of fully industrialized nations, with average per capita income that surpassed $20,000 in 2007. And, unlike China, South Korea has achieved economic and political growth at the same time, with an increasingly well-established multiparty democracy that respects free speech and election results. South Korea, says U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, is "the best example in the post–World War II era of a country that has overcome enormous obstacles to achieve this kind of success."

Many Southeast Asian nations, alarmed by the harsh sides of the China model, look to South Korea as an alternative. Vietnam is sending civil servants there, studying how in the 1970s and '80s Seoul used massive government support, such as cheap loans, to develop strategic industries like steel and petrochemicals as the backbone of its export economy. As part of Vietnam's effort to develop capital markets, it also now runs a stock exchange in Hanoi, built with the help of the Korea Exchange. Officials from Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan regularly visit South Korea to join training programs that teach economic and business management. "Developing countries are eager to learn South Korea's economic model because of its relevance to them," says Euh Yoon-dae, a Korea University economist currently heading a presidential committee to promote the national brand. "Our open economic system is more appealing to them than, say, that of China."

Surrounded by bigger powers—China, Russia, and Japan—South Korea needs to carve out a global role for itself to "ensure its prosperity and security," says David Straub, a Korea expert at Stanford University. So, in his first year in office, Lee made a point of systematically reaching out to foreign leaders in the United States and other major powers. The following year he headed to Europe. This year, Straub says, Lee is expected to target Africa. At the same time, he is upping South Korea's profile abroad, posting 3,000 volunteers from its version of the Peace Corps to Asia and Africa, where they will focus on public health and childhood education, with plans to increase that number to 20,000 by 2013. Last year South Korea officially became the first former recipient of international aid to graduate to the donor ranks, sending $1 billion to dozens of poor countries, and it plans to triple that sum within five years. Likewise, the number of troops it commits to U.N. peacekeeping operations will jump from 400 in 2009 to 1,000 this year and will work in roughly 10 nations, including Lebanon and Pakistan.

Lee has big plans for Brand South Korea, too. At Hyundai, he turned what had been a small contractor into a global manufacturing powerhouse. He speaks English, unlike his predecessor as president, and he is comfortable playing national pitchman. Just after Christmas, following six rounds of telephone calls with United Arab Emirates President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and a last-minute visit to the country, Lee helped South Korea beat out a French and a joint U.S.-Japan consortium to win its biggest foreign contract ever: a $40 billion nuclear-power-plant contract in the U.A.E. While Hyundai and Samsung have overcome the perception abroad that "made in South Korea" still means poorly made, many other South Korean brands have not. According to a survey by Simon Anholt, a British expert on national branding, the country ranks 33rd in global branding power, although its economic size ranks 13th in the world. What's more, more than half of U.S. college students believe Hyundai and Samsung are Japanese brands. "Our job is to narrow the perception gap between the national and corporate brands," says Euh, the head of the branding committee.

Lee plans to build on that success at the G20 summit. He has already distinguished himself from his predecessors by embracing foreign investment and free trade, rather than focusing on rigid ideology, and he intends to use the meeting to showcase the rewards of that strategy. Lee's hope is that he can send a message to smaller, poorer countries, particularly in Asia, that South Korea's less insular, more global approach can be a model they can follow, too. Of course, as his opponents are quick to point out, the fate of his country will not change because the leaders of 20 advanced nations get together for a few days. But Lee says it is part of a larger effort to move his country "away from the periphery of Asia," as he put it recently, "and into the center of the world."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Seoul was ranked third on the NYT list of 31 places to go

Seoul was ranked third on the New York Times list of 31 places to go this year behind Sri Lanka and Argentina's Patagonia Wine Country.

The nation's capital was the sole East Asian city among the top 10 in the daily's annual picks for travel destinations.

"Forget Tokyo. Design aficionados are now heading to Seoul," the daily said. "They have been drawn by the Korean capital's glammed-up cafes and restaurants, immaculate art galleries and monumental fashion palaces like the sprawling outpost of Milan's 10 Corso Como and the widely noted Ann Demeulemeester store - an avant-garde Chia Pet covered in vegetation."

Seoul has emerged in recent years as a serious player in the design industry.

In 2007, it was appointed World Design Capital of 2010 by the International Council of Societies Design Alliance - a city promotion project that recognizes and awards accomplishments made by cities around the world in the field of design.

Other East Asian cities selected on the list were Shanghai at 12th and Shenzhen at 20th.

서울, NYT 선정 '올해 가봐야 할 명소' 3위
서울이 뉴욕타임즈가 꼽은 올해 가봐야 할 31개의 장소 중 스리랑카와 아르헨티나의 파타고니아 포도밭에 이어 3위를 차지했다. 동아시아 도시 중 10위 안에 여행지로 이름을 올린 것은 서울이 유일하다. 뉴욕타임즈는 또 “도쿄는 잊어라. 디자인 마니아들이 서울로 향하고 있다”고 전하면서, “이들은 한국의 수도에 있는 황홀한 카페와 레스토랑, 흠잡을 데 없는 미술관, 기념비적인 패션 매장에 끌리고 있다"고 보도했다.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Record snowfall blankets Seoul, South Korea

Buildings and houses are covered with snow in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2010. Seoul residents slogged through the heaviest snowfall in modern Korean history after a winter storm dumped more than 28 centimeters (11 inches) Monday, forcing airports to cancel flights and paralyzing traffic in South Korea's bustling capital.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Video: Invest in Korea 2010