Being petty works but diminishes innovation

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Being petty works but diminishes innovation

What’s the problem with Korean innovation?

The Oxford English Dictionary made the news recently when it said it was considering adding the word tuhao, Chinese slang for an up-and-comer, to its 2014 edition.

When someone is referred to as tuhao in China, it means he or she is part of the country’s growing elite with impressive spending power. The publisher of the dictionary, the Oxford University Press, explained how it came to make such a consideration.

“A lot of media has given attention to the word tuhao,” it said, “which triggered our interest.”

There are Korean words in the Oxford English Dictionary like chaebol - a large family-controlled conglomerate - and K-pop, which refers to Korean pop music. However, there is one Korean word that hasn’t made the dictionary but is an important term for any foreigner interested in developing a deep understanding of the Korean economy and society. It’s ggomsu, which refers to small-minded and cowardly behavior. This particular word became well known in Korea through an online political podcast called “I am Ggomsu” - often defined as a petty-minded creep - during the Lee Myung-bak administration. Lee himself was the one being accused of being petty minded.

This word explains many otherwise incomprehensible phenomenas in Korean economy and society.

In Korean, the word has its positive side because it can also infer flexibility and adaptability. For example, there are often cases in Korean society when impossible things become possible through a person behaving like a ggomsu. In fact, throughout my career as a journalist, I’ve witnessed many occasions when working-level officials are denounced by their bosses because they stick to their principles rather than leaving room for some flexibility.

Although behaving like a ggomsu can bring positive results, it can also push a situation into the unpredictable realm. Let’s take the railway strike controversy of last month. The Park Geun-hye government made the solemn vow “there will be no privatization of the railway taking place.” But the union of the Korea Railway Corporation didn’t take those words seriously because it believed the government was playing ggomsu with them.

The act of playing ggomsu is widespread in Korean society. Once there was a comedy program with the slyly winking catchphrase, “Nothing is impossible in Korea.” Cynicism was implied.

In a book released last year titled “BBK’s Betrayal,” written by Korean-American Kim Kyung-joon, a former businessman, the author refers to past President Lee Myung-bak as the “Master of Ggomsu.” The so-called BBK scandal refers to a stock price manipulation scandal involving the investment firm BBK. Kim and former President Lee were business partners from 2000 to 2001. The scandal was prominent during Lee’s presidential election campaign in 2007.

Although I would like to make clear that what’s written in the book isn’t all true and is simply Kim’s side of the story, what may have seemed absurd to Kim, who studied in the United States, is the fact that people in Korea, rather than following principles, resort to their own expedients.

Playing ggomsu may allow a country like Korea to wriggle through crises, but it is definitely a barrier to innovation. Korean companies that have become global names earned their profits by being fast followers, meaning they have been good at copying products already in the market. In other words, because Korean companies fell behind their competitors when it comes to research and development, they played a little bit of ggomsu by being fast followers. This added vitality to their businesses.

Now, however, it’s time to change. Korean companies that are at the forefront of the world market, like Samsung, express the fear that there are no global companies in front of them for them to chase - or imitate. They have never gone into such a lonely battle before in which there is no place for ggomsu-like behavior. It’s time for them to compete with the unknown, and that’s called innovation.

In a place where there is widespread ggomsu-like behavior, there is a little less predictability than elsewhere. This has had a deterring effect on investors from other countries because they are not able to predict the future the way they are used to. Trust in society will be restored once change happens. Korea will be able to become a leader in global innovation if there is a growing understanding that impossible things cannot be done - and room for creativity is created.

By Shim Jae-woo Business desk chief []
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