[OUTLOOK]Foreign-friendly Seoul? It’s easyNot long ago, Lee Brown, the mayor of Houston, Texas, proposed putting up street signs written in Korean in his city. But Korean residents there quickly shot down the offer, saying they did not want to offend other ethnic groups and, anyway, it wasn’t important. Koreans knew how to get around Houston.
Like Lee Brown, Lee Myung-bak, the mayor of Seoul, tries to think of ways to make his city more appealing to residents from other parts of the world. He welcomes suggestions. Last week at a gathering for 100 foreign business representatives, diplomats and their spouses, the mayor got an earful. The session was politely called a Seoul Town Meeting, but it was not entirely polite.
The foreigners bluntly described Seoul’s traffic as terrible, its drivers as among the worst in the world, its schools for foreigners as poor and overpriced, and the rental market for housing as a major headache.
They also complained the city did not have enough green space, that immigration was cumbersome, that medical facilities were poor and that Seoulites did not speak English well enough. One man from Singapore demanded to know why the English on street signs was so small. A gentleman from South America turned on his fellow foreigners and said Seoul was paying too much attention to Americans and Europeans. Maybe he wanted street signs in Spanish.
Mayor Lee listened patiently to the grumbling and promised that his administration would do everything it could to improve the quality of life for non-Korean residents ― at least the rich ones. Some of the impetus for the meeting stems from advice the mayor receives from the Foreign Investment Advisory Council, which includes well-heeled business leaders from multinational companies.
Houston’s mayor was trying to be nice to Koreans because he wanted votes. The reason Seoul’s mayor makes an effort is about money. Mr. Lee hopes to attract more investment from overseas as part of a central government plan aimed at making the Seoul area an economic hub of Northeast Asia.
Seoul, for my money, has done a remarkable job. Street signs in English are everywhere. Buses have their routes in English plastered on the windshield. The subways are easy to get around. Recordings in English announce subway and bus stops. Imagine New York doing this in Korean for its hundreds of thousands of Korean residents. No way.
Seoul has information kiosks all over the central city, staffed with interpreters. Go to Gyeongbok Palace and a well-trained guide will escort you around in perfect English or other languages for free. Just try that at the Versailles palace, outside of Paris, with Korean.
Traffic is bad in London, New York, Tokyo ― you name it. You learn when not to get into a cab. My resident’s permit was obtained in two visits to the immigration office that took one hour in all. (I will say I didn’t like being fingerprinted).
A Korean official asked me how long the process would take in the United States. The answer is weeks and usually months.
Still according to international surveys, Seoul ranks low in Asia as an attractive place to live or do business. But even as Mayor Lee makes efforts to help foreigners, I believe he is missing the point and perhaps wasting his time in listening to the carping of strangers about his city.
If he wants to improve the city, he ought to do it for the people who call Seoul home.
Here’s my advice: Living in Seoul for most foreigners is not a quality-of-life issue. It’s a matter of quantity. Foreigners will come and invest in Seoul no matter how bad the conditions might be, if they think they can make lots of money. This goes for multinational executives as well as English teachers.
No one at the Town Meeting talked about the larger concerns affecting Korea’s future. Traffic, schools, visa and English problems aside, Korea is not a stable place. Nuclear politics with North Korea and vast government corruption in the South hang over the country. A massive bubble of bad credit has rocked the economy. The departure of some U.S. forces, which have ensured security for a long time, seems possible.
If that were not enough, Korea ― really because of its success ― is no longer a cheap and easy labor market. I know the chairman of a large Korean apparel company who will open a new factory in April with 3,000 workers to supply clothing to Target and Wal-Mart stores in the United States. The new operation is in China, and he has other plants in the Philippines and Guatemala.
(This is one reason why it might not be such a good idea to chase out the low-paid illegal foreign workers, whose voices, by the way, were not heard last week at the mayor’s meeting with the businessmen.)
Mayor Lee has a great and exciting city under his care. But he needs to remember that foreign investors here vote with their feet. To keep them and bring more to Seoul, you need to think bigger than street signs.
Of course, Mr. Lee cannot do much about the national issues, but as the leader of a city with 20 percent of the country’s population living in it, he should have a strong voice.
And if I could mention a complaint of my own: Your hi-tech film extolling the virtues of Seoul oddly shows buses and cars whizzing along the city’s big highways. You might think about dropping that part.
* The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Charles D. Sherman