Listening but not hearing

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Listening but not hearing

President Moon Jae-in met with Korean business pioneers and founders of start-ups including some unicorns — valued at least $1 billion — in his final round of meetings with business leaders of various types. The guests formed a relatively modest group of seven. The nature of discussions was deeper and more specific than with mainstream titans of industry.

Lee Hae-jin, founder and current global investment officer of Korean internet giant Naver, complained of reverse discrimination as multinationals are exempted from a multitude of local regulations. Kim Taek-jin, founder of gaming company NCSoft, bluntly asked the government to become “smarter” as new government measures tend to “undermine the market economy.” Lee Seung-gun, head of Viva Republica — the parent of fintech company Toss and the sole Korean name on the world’s 100 top fintech corporations list — described how tough it is to sell the Korean market to foreign investors due to heavy layers of regulations. He singled out the enforcement of a 52-hour workweek on all workplaces. “The intention of the policy is understandable. But forcing 52 hours is a form of regulatory discouragement to a company eager to grow,” he said.

What the entrepreneurs put forward can be agreed to by most. The president listened carefully to their views. But whether any difference will be made remains questionable. Businessmen have been disappointed before as the president promised one thing and did the exact opposite later.

In opening remarks, Moon revealed a self-serving perspective on the economy. He said the number of newly registered corporate entities reached a record high last year, as well as investment in start-ups and exports by small- and mid-sized companies, all thanks to government policy endeavors.

But those achievements are pitiful in the global context. Of 311 unicorns worldwide, there are only six of Korean origin. The United States generated 151 and China 85. The comparison is even more embarrassing in value terms. E-commerce platform Coupang, the largest among Korea’s unicorns, is valued at around 10 trillion won ($8.9 billion). Beijing-based news and content platform Toutiao has grown to a value of $75 billion in just seven years in business. Moreover, growth in start-ups remains stagnant. There were 45 unicorns five years ago, which has surged to 311 worldwide. During the same time, Korea added just five.

Government policy has hampered, not propelled, growth for Korean start-ups. Kim Bom, founder of Coupang, said uncertainty gets in the way of efforts to attract foreign investment. “There is uncertainty in the market because regulations change and are differently interpreted [according to the governing power],” he said. Kim Bong-jin, CEO of delivery platform Woowa Brothers, also asked for the removal of uncertainties so that entrepreneurs can do business with a long-term perspective.

Moon failed to understand the essence of their pleas. He said uncertainties were lessening due to reduced geopolitical risks. As in the meetings with heads of bigger companies, the dialogue turned out to be a public relations stunt. If actions don’t follow these complaints, investments and market sentiment won’t pick up.

JoongAng Sunday, Feb. 9
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