Here and There – South Korea

Presenting talks can lead you to some unexpected places.  In November 1996 I was in Seoul, taking part in a Human Resource Development Conference organised by the Korean Management Association (they didn’t see any need to point out it was a South Korean organisation).  My topic was ‘Competitive Human Resource Development Strategies: changing management and managing change’, which slightly clever title did little to mask the fact this was a prosaic, moderately workmanlike and ultimately inconsequential commentary on issues in human resource management.  I suspect I had been invited to present a paper because the Korean Management Association was one member of the Asian Association of Management Organisations (AAMO), and AAMO’s members included the Australian Institute of Management, my workplace at the time.  Indeed, for a few years, I was the Executive Secretary of AAMO:  a role almost as prosaic and inconsequential as my presentation!

However, perhaps more important than my presentation, although I was not to realise this until a year or so later, the conference and associated exhibition took place in the functions area of Lotte Hotel World, part of a multistorey complex, together with the Lotte Department Store, situated in the centre of Seoul, close to the site of the 1988 Olympic Games.  I didn’t spend many days in South Korea.  Although I had some time to wander around Seoul’s central district, most of my days were taken up in meetings.  I would liked to have seen more.  One item that caught my attention was a sign for the Lotte theme park, Lotte World, which had opened seven years earlier, and was underground, underneath both the hotel and department store.

I had been intrigued by underground theme parks before.  I had seen one in Malaysia a couple of years earlier, under a casino complex in the Genting Highlands.  The Malaysian theme park  was a place affluent Malaysians could dump their children for the day, under the supervision of the nanny, while the parents gambled.  If the casino was fancy, the theme park was far from classy!  I went to inspect Lotte World.  Recently updated, it had all the signs of being a similar dumping ground, although in this case shoppers were assisted by a large staff to keep an eye on their offspring.  My brief inspection over, I returned to the surface, and went back into meetings.

Two years later I had changed employment, and was now a university professor, teaching strategy and innovation.  One way to engage students was to have them work on case studies and I wandered through sources like the Harvard Business School Press to find suitable examples.  Early on, I found ‘Samsung and the Theme Park Industry in Korea’.  It was perfect.  Samsung, one of the biggest chaebols (conglomerates) in South Korea had acquired a 3,700-acre tract in the Yongin Valley, said to be 1 hour away from Seoul (given the current state of South Korean traffic, the journey now takes around 2 hours!).  When Yongin Farmland (Farmland), opened in 1976, it was the first amusement park in Korea.  It was managed by Joong-Ang Development Company, a wholly owned Samsung subsidiary, and the facility was intended to offer locals access to a better quality of life through healthy, open-air leisure activities.

From its early beginnings, when it hosted a demonstration agricultural centre to show how mountainous land could be used productively for growing food products, it quickly grew by adding attractions.  These included a family recreation park with a number of rides, a botanical garden to enjoy and learn about nature, and a free-range animal park complete with a children’s petting zoo.  The zoo featured Asia’s first safari park, the open style hosting  prowling lions among other animals. The possibility of seeing wild lions drew thousands of daily visitors each day, and 880,000 went to Yongin Farmland in its first year.

Farmland’s success was about more than lions.  In 1985, it played host to Korea’s first-ever rose festival, heralding an era of flower festivals that soon swept the nation. As well as becoming famous for holding Korea’s floral extravaganzas, the amusement park side of Farmland grew, adding performances, parades and events.  In 1988, with Seoul hosting the Olympics, the attractions had taken over.  Yongin Farmland was reborn as an all-year-round theme park, even opening a sledding slope.  In a country where most people had never seen snow, snow sledding drew even more visitors to enjoy Farmland’s ‘stress-free and fun winter leisure activity that the whole family could enjoy’. The sledding slope was to initiate a Korean winter leisure culture, and interest in snow and ice sports.  This was to culminate in South Korea hosting the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018 .

The open style animal park at Farmland continued to develop in the late 1980s, with the lion safari expanded with the addition of tigers and bears.  In 1996, a newly created savanna safari was also added, and the entire safari collection was renamed Safari World.  While this was to become Everland’s most popular attraction, further activities were added.  In a drastic departure from the traditional theme park approach, Yongin Farmland had opened a Motor Park in late 1993, complete with a circuit track and real racing cars!  That lost money initially, but it eventually broke even, a triumph for the improbably named Mr Her, the CEO.

You might be wondering where Lotte World fits into this.  The case study I had obtained included details on a number of theme parks in South Korea.  Seoul Grand Park, Dream Land and Childrens Grand Park were competitors to Farmland, and so was Lotte World.  My students would have two challenges.  They had to develop a strategy to deal with the competition, including Lotte World, and at the same time explore how to grow the business and identify innovative and entrepreneurial approaches that might enhance its success.  Well, all that is history.  Farmland is now Everland and remains the largest and most profitable of the South Korean theme parks, while Lotte Development has grown its Lotte World complex over five levels.  Everland outside Seoul and Lotte World in the city dominate the South Korean theme scene.  If you visit Seoul today, you will find there are special deals available for tourists to visit Everland, and in recent years onsite accommodation has been added.

We often make the comment that migrants are ‘stuck’ with the image of the country they left as it was when they departed – often bearing little relationship to what it has become since.

The same is true for visitors to countries, which explains why my view of Russia is all about food shortages, political upheavals, and a depressed population, an image made out of the memories from a visit there in 1989.  In the same way, my view of South Korea is stuck centred around the Lotte complex and the theme park industry.  It would be rather like a British tourist returning home from a holiday in Australia, convinced the country is obsessed with ‘beaches, birds and booze’ …  just a minute, that’s true, isn’t it?

There were two things I didn’t see when I was in Seoul in 1996, because I wasn’t paying attention.  Staying at Lotte World insulated me from seeing much of life in the city.  Even if that hadn’t been the case, polite hosts avoided saying much about that place above the 38th Parallel and across the Demilitarised Zone.  However, South Korea was changing rapidly, and I did recognise that.  Despite hoping to be tourist, meetings were taking up my time.  What did I want to do?  I wanted to see the Sungnyemun, one of the Eight Gates in the Fortress Wall of Seoul which had surrounded the city between the 14th and 18th Centuries.  Built in the 14th century, is ‘a historic pagoda-style gateway, and is designated as the first National Treasure of South Korea.’  I did see it.  It was as impressive as it had been described, once one of the three major gateways through Seoul’s city walls, stone walls in a circuit of 18.2 kilometres, standing 6.1 metres high.  Massive.  It looked Japanese.

In many other ways, and not surprising given its history, South Korea was like Japan.  Brief forays outside the hotel revealed a city packed with electronics shops.  Perhaps it was the area I was in, but in comparison I saw few food stores, supermarkets, or sources for the usual consumer products.  That kind of shopping was in the Lotte Department Store.  Away down the street, it was more like a sub-culture:  open shop fronts inviting us into tiny stores selling electronic equipment, computer games (those primitive computer games of twenty-five years ago), and mobile phones.  By this stage, 2G or digital cellular phones were becoming popular, and SMS had also started to be used.  It was more than a little disconcerting to see the variety of flip-phones available.  It never occurred to me to buy one (I was still living in the word where I assumed telcos ran everything), despite the varieties of phones I was shown.

So what, you might be thinking.  Well, for a person interested in business strategy, scenarios, and innovation, I just didn’t get it.  I understood the attractions of the mobile telephone, and I had bought a Motorola ‘monster’ years before.  However, my head was stuck in telephony, and I didn’t grasp where this technology might be going.  I think I was impressed by the industry of the people working in the stores I peered into, yet I saw it as competition of a kind I knew.  Car makers competed, but the products were all fundamentally the same, and had been so for seventy years.  Mobile telephone makers competed, but I hadn’t grasped that this was the beginning of a technology and a variety of products that would leave these simple versions behind in just a few years.  I might have wanted a mobile telephone for convenience, but, in a rather odd analogy, I couldn’t grasp that I was looking at through a window that this was a device that going keep on growing and developing.

I don’t want to exaggerate.  I caught up quickly as the pace of change in mobile telephony began to accelerate in the next few years.  However, I did regret I didn’t spend more time talking to people in those Seoul stores.

There was one other event in that visit.  One day when I was outside at lunchtime, I heard shouting and chanting.  Suddenly, close to the hotel, what appeared to be many hundreds of men came racing along the road, wearing headbands, placards, and singing rhythmic songs.  It was slightly frightening.  One of the hotel staff told me it was a union rally.  Rally?  It was more like a road race.  It was a brief opportunity to see that South Korea was also a place of disputes, tensions and strikes.  This was around the time when fist fights would break out in parliament.  If I’d had my wits about me, I would have realised the country was still going through growing pains.

Perhaps even more embarrassing was my ignorance over Korea’s situation.  I will have to claim that this was a function of background.  I was still in a junior school when the Korean war began, and that was in some distant land.  When I was older, the Vietnam war became an important factor in my life, and, like many in my generation, the Korean War remained somewhere in the background.  No-one talked about North Korea when I was in Seoul.  It was if the ‘hermit kingdom’ didn’t exist.  Two years later I would be teaching business strategy in an MBA, with students from Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia.  I had to catch up fast.  This was also the time of the ‘Asian Tigers’.  South Koreas was on an astonishing growth path, racing through the stages of development many other countries had experienced, almost as if they were going straight from agriculture to hi-tech.

In a different fashion, my visit to South Korea was to provide an important insight into Australia.  I had considered myself well-travelled.  I had been to many European countries, to North America, and to parts of Asia.  Much of the time, I was in ‘comfortable’ places.  In Asia these had included Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, where English was the everyday language, at least as far as I was concerned, and practices were familiar.  When I was in Japan, I spent most of my time in places where English would be used.  Even if  Vietnam was unlike most places I had visited, the American influence meant that English was, once again, generally used.  However, two countries were different.

The first was China.  In going to Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, I was spoilt.  People knew me, knew my university, and I was part of a series of joint education and training ventures.  I could lecture in a leading Chinese university in my own language.  The only difference was the preference for 3–4-hour sessions, of which the first three hours were supposed to be my lecturing!  I adapted.  More to the point, I was sheltered from seeing much more than my hosts arranged.  They were always generous and helpful.  I knew my visits took me to only the tiniest part of the country, and I interacted with an equally tiny subset of the people, mainly academics and senior executives.  In many ways I could have been in Melbourne.

The other was South Korea.  That visit 25 years ago had a big impact on me.  Not because of what I saw in Seoul, the meetings, the forays into town, but because it made the contrast between that part of Asia and Australia stark.  South Korea was different in a way that many other countries were not.  Not different in any judgemental sense, but simply different.  There were no easy ways to make sense of what I saw, and language was a real challenge.  Well, you might say, no surprise:  I had been pretty sheltered in my travels much of the time.  That wasn’t the issue.  The impact was on my perception of Australia.

In a way that wasn’t unfamiliar, but far more starkly, I could see how different and how isolated Australia was.  Today I might say that Melbourne is in the wrong place.  It is a placid, affluent, easy lifestyle part of the world.  Visually it could be part of the UK or Europe (except the weather is usually much better in Australia).  We get exercised about poverty, racial discrimination and sexist behaviour, but any visitor from a country like South Korea would think we were living in paradise.  Our problems, challenges and aspirations are unlike those of many of our Asian neighbours.  I don’t want to overstate the case, but we live in a bubble, and that was evidently the case when I was in Seoul.  Another world.

I often remark that I have been something of a wanderer.  I’ve lived in the UK, in Australia and in the USA.  A typical ‘white Anglo-Saxon male’, I have been in a world quite unimaginable to most people.  A privileged life.  From time to time I have worried about my fortunate status.  I know it has been the accident of birth.  How have I paid my dues for ending up in such a fortunate club?  On a good day, I like to think I have helped leaders understand more about the world around them, to be more strategic and insightful in their actions.  I tell myself I have encouraged and supported innovators and entrepreneurs, helping young people develop new businesses and new ways to improve the lifestyles of others.  Not every day is a good day.  There are other times when I realise, to my chagrin, that I have drifted along, quite happily enjoying the advantages I have had, and not done enough to make a better world around me.  That visit to South Korea captured both sides.  On the one hand, I was working with other management institute leaders in developing better programs and services intended to ensure executives would do a better job.  On the other hand, I knew there was much more to be done, and now I rue my weak response to the challenges.  What did one insightful teacher write on my school report?  ‘Could do better’.