A long history of doing business“I had just got off an 18-hour flight and it was bloody freezing ― 20 degrees below and sleet, as I recall. I was met by one of the client contacts. He drove me to my hotel, told me to drop off my bags and then took me straight to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
“He put a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label in front of me and asked, ‘Are you a good drinker?’ I had been told that this was a kind of test, so I drank the whole bottle with him, which didn’t help the jet lag. And of course, I didn’t feel so good when I reported for duty the next day!”
This was the first impression that Seoul made upon public relations executive Bill Rylance of Burson-Marsteller, when he first came here in the 1980s. He’s one of many expatriate businessmen whose stories contribute to “American Business and the Korean Miracle: U.S. Enterprises in Korea, 1866 - the Present,” a book that’s just been published to mark the 50th anniversary of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.
Commissioned by the chamber and written by Andrew Salmon, a British expatriate who himself works for Merit/Burson-Marsteller (and who contributes food reviews to the IHT-JoongAng Daily), the 288-page coffee-table book ― available through the chamber ― tells the story of American business’s history in Korea, beginning with the somewhat mysterious story of the ill-fated General Sherman, an armed U.S. vessel that first tried to open up trade with the Joseon Dynasty:
“Ignoring warnings not to proceed, in August 1866, the Sherman crossed the rapids below Pyeongyang ― heavy rains had made them temporarily navigable ― and dropped anchor off the city. The Koreans gave food supplies to the Sherman but, in deference to official policy, refused to trade,” Mr. Salmon writes.
“Frustrated, the crew took hostage a local official. The population and local militia took (understandable) offense. Fighting broke out. At first, the ship’s cannon gave the Sherman the advantage, but to the crew’s diplomatic misconduct must be added a professional snafu: when the waters receded after the rains stopped, the ship ran aground.
“This was to prove the Sherman’s undoing. The Koreans attacked the helpless vessel with fire boats, setting it afire. Survivors leapt into the water where they were captured and cut down. A particularly grisly aspect of their fate is that some of the crew’s body parts were, according to the original Korean sources, cut off and used for medicine.”
From that inauspicious beginning, the book traces American business involvement in Korea through Japanese colonialism and the rapid industrialization that followed the Korean War, up to the economic crisis of the late 1990s and last year’s anti-American demonstrations.
Besides dealing directly with the history of U.S. business on the peninsula, the book tells the stories of various expatriates encountering Korean culture. One of the first was Paul Georg von Moellendorff, a German appointed by the Chinese in 1882 to be the first Western advisor to the Joseon Dynasty.
“Von Moellendorff was chronically short-sighted, but was informed that it was impolite to wear spectacles in the royal presence,” Mr. Salmon writes. “On his first meeting with the king, he rehearsed all his actions beforehand, and undertook the meeting without glasses. ‘King Gojong,’ says academic Andrei Lankov, ‘was much impressed with the good manners displayed by this “barbarian,” and von Moellendorff’s future activities at court were much eased by this.’”
Some of the first American entrepreneurs here fared little better than the crew of the General Sherman, according to the book. One of the first, according to the book, was Captain George G. Mott, who “arrived in June, 1883, on a Japanese trading schooner with a cargo of trading goods, but died a few days after arrival, and had the dubious honor of being the first recorded burial in the foreigners’ cemetery there.”
Captain Mott was followed by another American, Captain Charles H. Cooper, about whom an author named Harold Cook quoted the Japanese counsel as saying: “He lived in a shabby building in front of the gate of the Chinese government office. While living like a beggar, he sold canned goods and Western liquor which he obtained in Nagasaki.”
Odd and amusing stories abound. For a time, apparently, some Westerners believed that Korea had an Empress Emily ― one Emily Brown, who was reported in the Boston Sunday Post of Nov. 29, 1903 to have married King Gojong.
The article described her as “the first American Empress” and said that she “holds the power of life or death over seventeen millions of trembling subjects.” Though King Sejong did marry his second wife in 1903, she certainly wasn’t Emily Brown; according to the book, it’s unclear whether the newspaper story was a hoax or some sort of colossal mistake.
The book’s overview of the story of American business here ― from Ford’s dealings with Hyundai to the name of the person who started Korea’s first Pizza Hut (Sung Shin-jae, if you were wondering) ― is salted with anecdotes from a variety of expats, who talk about living and working in the former Hermit Kingdom. Mr. Rylance, who was welcomed to Korea with a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, isn’t the last to touch on the crucial social aspect of doing business here. Longtime expat Michael Breen is quoted from his book “The Koreans”:
“For business executives, the cost of dining out gets astronomical. The important thing to understand about it is that it involves more than networking. There’s a measure of loyalty that goes with it. They say that if you have coffee with someone, you will be acquaintances; if you have lunch you can be friends; but if you get drunk together, you can be very close.”
Or, as academic and author Andrei Lankov puts it: “I remember how a decade ago one friend who wanted to do business in Korea asked me what she should do first. I suggested she go there herself for a week without any particular plans and try to meet as many people as possible. She came back disappointed: ‘I spent all this time dining and making small talk,’ she said. But it worked out very well. Within a month or two, she discovered that people with whom she had interacted began to approach her with some quite interesting ideas.”
by Lee Ho-jeong