By Thomas Klassen
A Korean wave is sweeping the world. The secretary-general of the United Nations is Korean, the head of the World Bank 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. In Ontario, Samsung and the Korea Electric Power Corp. are spending more than $3 billion to build wind and solar energy plants.
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. Until five years ago, Canada’s GDP was greater than Korea’s. Now Korea outpaces Canada and the gap grows each year.
What are the lessons for Canada 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. Canada, blessed with a land mass 100 times that of South Korea, and abundant natural resources, fails to prioritize education. That Canada has no national post-secondary education department or strategy is incomprehensible to all international observers.
If there was ever an argument for constitutional reform in Canada, it is surely to grant the federal government a role in ensuring that the nation’s universities, colleges and private vocational schools operate in a strategic manner in a knowledge economy.
The second lesson for Canada 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 that Canadians can learn from Korea 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. Canada, on the other hand, in the past 10 years, managed to implemented free trade agreements with Colombia, Iceland, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Norway, Peru and Switzerland. These countries represent so little of Canada’s annual trade that the total dollar amount is a rounding error.
Canada, after more than a decade of negotiations, is still uncertain if it wishes to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, India, Korea or any major economy. Watching from the sidelines is not a good strategy in the fast-moving moving global economy.
As Canadians become more and more enticed to spend money on Korean goods and services, they might well consider that if a dirt poor country can become rich in 50 years, could not a wealthy country become poor in the next 50?
Thomas Klassen is an associate professor of political science at York University. He has lived, and taught at universities, in Korea and written extensively about the country.