New Dutch explorers are business studentsAn unfamiliar song of melody and words spread out from Murphy’s, an Irish pub in the back alleys of Jongno, central Seoul, around the stroke of midnight. The noisemakers on this humid summer night are 28 students from Holland celebrating a birthday.
One fellow balances a pair of glasses on another, on a rectangular wood table, fills the two top-tier glasses with liquor and lights them on fire. Then, two revelers, standing behind the table, drink the flaming liquor through plastic straws before it burns them as friends cheer. The party wends through the wee hours.
Are these a bunch of freewheeling students from Europe enjoying their holiday in Korea? Not by a long shot.
The following Monday, at 9 a.m., these same 28 students, appearing serious in their dark suits, sit in a motel lobby in Cheongjin-dong.
They are students of international business at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. They are in Korea for a research project.
“We got information about Korea by searching the libraries in Holland as much as possible,” Tjerry Fruhling, a team manager, said. “Furthermore, we contacted with KOTRA [Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency] and tried to get all its reports. Based on these, we analyzed the market opportunities in South Korea.”
Though Korea draws attention in economic circles because of its meteoric rise to the world’s 13th largest economy and rapid recovery from the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, these Dutch students say the 2002 World Cup tickled their curiosity about Korea as an investment destination more than anything.
“We are very interested in the Korean corporations in the Netherlands, and also in Dutch companies trading with Korea,” says Ms. Fruhling, over breakfast. She is one of two project managers accompanying the students to Korea.
The other is Olga Ryk, who shows a photo of the group with the former national soccer coach, Guus Hiddink, giving the students plums. “He is our recommender,” Ms. Ryk says. “We met him at a dinner party last Friday celebrating the visit of the Dutch trade delegation at the Hyatt Hotel.”
For three weeks, the team has conducted field research across the country for Dutch companies with operations here, which have sponsored the trip. “Some went to Ulsan to investigate the shipping industry,” Ms. Fruhling says. “Some went to Gumi to see the flower industry, and some visited pharmaceutical companies and universities.”
After the project ends this weekend, team members will fly back to Rotterdam, but not before some much-deserved exploration of the Korean countryside. Having cleared their minds briefly, students will begin preparing their final reports, due in October to the company executives in the Netherlands.
Each team fans out to a different area of Korea with its own mission at hand. One team had lined up to assist Emile Ratelband, a renowned Dutch management trainer, at his 2 p.m. lecture at Korea University. Before the lecture got under way, students greeted guests in front of the main gate of Inchon Memorial Hall.
“When we decided to research management training of Korea, we tried to contact him directly,” says Willem Blom, the project leader. “To our luck, he was interested in South Korea and visited Seoul. That is why we’re helping him here.”
Though the lecture proceeds for two-and-a-half hours, the students are neither distracted nor tired. To close the event, Mathys Pongers, a student, relates his impression of Korea. The Demilitarized Zone stands out in his mind.
“You know, the partition of the Korean Peninsula is a very special situation,” Mr. Pongers says. “When I visited the DMZ on the weekend, I felt tension ― I can’t express properly this tense feeling. Actually, when I was a little boy, I visited the Berlin Wall; the feelings from these two experiences are almost the same. It’s the real state of affairs in Korea. I was never aware of that when I saw the streets of Seoul lively with people.”
The rhythmic sounds of percussion instruments accompany the students as they exit the hall. Three Dutch students run into the samulnori, a percussion quartet, and begin skipping and dancing to the rhythm.
The outburst of laughter lightens up the serious mood.
“There are lots of similarities between the Netherlands and Korea,” Bjorn Heurer, a student, says. “Both are small countries surrounded by world powers. Furthermore, they are not full of raw materials. They both, however, accomplished economic growth. And Seoul and Busan are like Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
“By the way,” he continues, “they have as many different things as similar things. Holland is very flat because most of the Dutch lands were reclaimed by drainage. But most of Korea is mountains. And Seoul is much more crowded than Amsterdam.”
He turns to another difference. “Ah! Korean foods. Our foods in the Netherlands normally are quite dull, like potatoes, broccoli ― not too stimulating. Korean foods, however, taste salty and hot. When I tried to eat kimchi for the first time, oh no!”
Though open to Korean culture, the Dutch students have precious little extra time to befriend Koreans during the week because of their academic demands. Another student, Floris Overheul, comments that Korean students look very diligent.
The Dutch look diligent to some Koreans, too. Park Yo-han, a student at Handong University who visited Erasmus last February, commented on that.
“I couldn’t believe that their plans and preparation were what students had done,” he says. “They already had finished general research and received recommendations from celebrities of the Netherlands like Pieter van Vollenhoven [chairman of the International Transportation Safety Association] and H.J. de Vries [the Dutch ambassador in Korea.] Their attitude and passion were what only students have, but their preparation was what only professionals have.”
by Kang Jin-ae