[Letters] Is 2011 the first year of a real Korean model?

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[Letters] Is 2011 the first year of a real Korean model?

In retrospect, 2010 marked a turning point for Korea: this is probably the year leadership spirit became mainstream. I’m not talking about the “can do, fighting” spirit, but about a cultural shift from an eternal-best follower to a trend-setter. Ever since I first came to Korea 20 years ago, business management has been essentially based on international benchmarks and executives obsessed with what others were doing overseas.

A new generation of U.S.-grown Ivy Leaguers have instilled strategy into Korean boardrooms, converting top jaebeols to quality, sustainability or proactivity. Most notably, Hyundai’s Chung Mong-koo or Samsung’s Lee Kun-hee had to shake up their own companies to force much-needed cultural revolutions. A couple of years later, both companies shine among the top stars of 2010, but both have yet to reach new levels in order to secure their recently claimed leaderships. And they are very much aware of it: even if Samsung increases its research and development efforts on a massive scale, competition remains fierce, and Chinese players keep catching up in all major innovation fields.

Yet, two of the main hurdles to this Korean revolution are homegrown: a SME ecosystem and an education system unfit for the challenges to come. First, ever-growing and ever more agile conglomerates still leave no room for SMEs: if they want to become bigger, small fishes can only grow more dependent on bigger fishes as clients or providers, or end up as trophies in their acquisition spree. In Korea’s unbalanced environment, major cultural changes can’t happen without top-down intervention, and it sometimes takes a while to set the pond in order. Last year, the Korean government had to coerce industry leaders into collaborating with each other as well as with smaller companies in key R&D fields.

The same can be said about Korea’s ailing educational system. Ailing? Korean students fare so well worldwide that this system is often praised as one of the most efficient. But a record suicide rate tells a completely different tale. If Korea reached the top thanks to a merit-based, social-ladder-friendly educational system, it will collapse if it persists into this unfair, money-based nightmare where creativity is totally eradicated, and where young humanoid robots compete in the ultimate race for conformity.

This time, change truly seems to be coming. And I’m confident it will radiate across a society so quick at embracing change. Seoul, the capital city, is showing the way by embracing cultural diversity and collaborative sourcing of new ideas to stimulate the SME ecosystem, to improve everyday life and international competitiveness. And at long last, the national government is reconsidering SMEs as a priority. Unfortunately, the much needed reform of education is not on the agenda of this otherwise very conservative power.

Now is the moment. To achieve international recognition, Korea must embrace reform if it wants to remain a top player. And to make of 2011 year one of the authentic Korean model.

Stephane Mot, a Korea JoongAng Daily subscriber
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