&#91OUTLOOK&#93Business hub only if all else fails

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&#91OUTLOOK&#93Business hub only if all else fails

For your average foreign observer, imagining Korea as a hub, as the new government would have us do, is a challenge.
But before rushing to judgment, we should remind ourselves that when it comes to making observations on the plans of Korean governments, foreign observers have historically been wrong.
Most of them scoffed at every stage of Korea’s development. They looked at the conditions at the time and concluded wrongly that Korea would not emerge from them. In doing so, they failed to factor in the element of leadership, most likely because Western education stresses the idea that circumstances and not individuals drive events.
Having said that, let’s admit that while we can see the logic ― being a logistics center could be the key to remaining viable in the face of an economically developed China ― many people have a hard time believing it can happen. We wonder how people who consider buying a foreign car to be traitorous can reinvent themselves as a center for international commerce.
Looking at current perceptions of Korea, I’d guess it’s the least likely to be voted a potential hub.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The idea has been creeping up on us for some time. I first noticed it some years back fluttering on banners over government buildings. “Visit Dynamic Korea: Hub of Asia,” obviously more of a message for domestic consumption than a sophisticated effort to attract foreign tourists. Then it spread. A lot of Korean towns now bill themselves as hubs of Asia. A significant number of the 7,000 or so entries for the competition last year to choose the slogan for Seoul were versions of the hub theme. (The misspelled “Herb of Asia” was also a popular offering).
The concept has been more recently expanded with the suggestion that Korea could become the international financial center for Northeast Asia. In order to achieve that goal, the country needs world-class businesses to choose to locate here over Shanghai, Tokyo, Singapore or Hong Kong.
And that brings us back to the cynical foreigner. Unlike past plans, which required Korean action, clearly this one calls for foreign response. What, then, does Korea need to do to become the hub of this part of the world?
First, despite popular opinion, it does not need to recreate the citizenry. Homo coreanus does not need to become a stylish chap who reads The Economist and chats in fluent English about derivatives. He can still freak out when his daughter announces she’s going to marry a foreigner. If Dubai can be a hub, there’s no reason why Mokpo cannot.
It really comes down to whether the attractions offered are better than elsewhere. Can communications in Korea be better than anywhere else? Yes, we can imagine that. Can Incheon Airport reach more destinations more rapidly than anywhere else? Yes. Can companies find services here that they need? Will enough people speak English? Will there be sufficient good schools that don’t cost absurd amounts of money? Will spouses get work visas? Will Koreans and foreigners be given the same legal rights? Will Korean companies engage in honest and open competition? Will taxes be reduced below levels of competitors? Will tax collection be more rational and transparent?
Taken one by one, each step seems possible. Some might be a little painful, but none would be impossible. Korea can become a logistics hub and an international financial center.
The question now, though, is whether it wants to be. For the only reason that Koreans would go through the pain would be if they feel there is no alternative.
The government may have got us all thinking that we need to become a hub, but once Seoul’s bureaucracy starts addressing the issues mentioned above, vested interests and long-held fears of foreign domination may conspire to weaken the perceived need.

* The writer is managing director of Merit/Burson-Marsteller and author of “The Koreans.” He is a member of the JoongAng Daily Ombsudsman Committee.

by Michael Breen
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