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Doing business in South Korea

By Sunanda K Satta-Ray
March 03, 2007 02:08 IST
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Rocking on a bullet train to a hip-hop future or prostrating themselves repeatedly before huge gilt Buddhas in the Jogeysa temple, South Koreans are good people to do business with. But not if your eyes are wide shut. They respond best to alertness that ensures there is no backsliding.

I have in mind two minor personal incidents amidst momentous events like funnelling 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to the enigmatic North to keep it off the Bomb or a surge in suicides -- 26.1 out of every 100,000, the highest in the OECD.

First, my swish hotel on the site of the Nampyol Palace where imperial Chinese envoys lodged in the latter days of Korea's Yi dynasty said it would have to charge me for Internet use as I had checked out. "I'll check back in then," I suggested, since there were still nearly 45 minutes to checking-out time.

The assistant manager in black jacket and striped trousers bowed formally. "This way please!" he said, led me to the Business Centre, installed me at a computer, bowed again and announced, "Complimentary for half an hour!"

The other encounter was more complicated. I had booked Tour 1 which would bring me back to the hotel by 1-o'-clock. That had repeatedly been emphasised, clarified and accepted, for I had an early afternoon plane to catch.

Half an hour into the tour, the guide asked each of the 11 passengers if we had booked for the whole day or half. A Canadian was on Tour 1 like me, others had chosen Tour 9 or 10. Each tour charged a different fee and had a different route and itinerary. Our ingenious guide then set about hammering out a compromise programme, taking out something here, adding something there.

"You're not missing anything... We'll stop at a better temple" or "The market is more attractive at night." Sometimes she would explain unapologetically about skipping a promised halt, "Traffic is so bad it will take half an hour to get there!"

The others were staying in Seoul and didn't mind. "I have to be back by one," I ventured feebly, and was met with "Impossible!" I suggested quite amiably that in that case I would ask the company for damages, and the guide smiled, replying equally amiably that she would see what could be done about it. She talked to the driver in Korean and came up with a bright idea. I could get off at the next stop and take a taxi back. "But I haven't any Korean money left," I explained. More consultations. Then, "I'll pay for the taxi."

She did. She was still the notional gainer for the one-third of the tour I missed cost — in theory — rather more than my taxi fare. But it was done with grace, and I wasn't complaining, especially since I had already explored the narrow lanes of the Itaewon shopping area on my own.

It was there I bumped into my only Indian connection, a weatherbeaten Korean shopkeeper who stopped me with "Kaisa hai?" He had worked five years in the Gulf with Indians and Bangladeshis. His vocabulary also included "Dhanyabad" and one to five in Bengali. The man wasn't at all importunate; not like pestering shopkeepers in some Arab countries. But, then, for all her manipulating, neither did my tour guide even hint at purchases, unlike guides in Beijing and Shanghai who are aggressive about the commissions they expect and rude and sulky when you don't buy.

Koreans are smooth, smiling and always courteous -- undoubtedly Japan's influence. But the only other Indian link I came across was a modern seven-storey stone stupa in the Jogyesa temple compound in which is housed a calcified relic (sarira) of the Buddha Sakyamuni that the Ceylonese monk, Dharmapala, brought from India. Though the stupa was not built until 1930, the sarira is, apparently, one of 84,000 that the Emperor Asoka had enshrined.

The Buddhist connection prompted me to remind the 500 bankers and businessmen attending the Bloomberg Emerging Markets Forum that the notion of a clearing house mooted by Ban Ki-Moon before he was called to a higher destiny is not exactly new.

Mr Ban saw Korea as a base for Indian businessmen venturing into north-east Asia, and India as a similar base for Korean companies to export to third countries in southern Asia, the Middle East and even Europe. Ancient Korea provided just such a forum for the discourse of religion, with Buddhism and sinicised Hindu deities moving westward from China to Japan.

The notion intrigued my listeners, some of whom sought details afterwards. They were extremely savvy about contemporary aspects like investment performance in India, as compared with China, Russia and Brazil, or the division of discretionary expenditure in India among dining and entertaining, shopping, travel and leisure, private health and cars, PCs and mobile phones. As we spoke, Hyundai's beleaguered chairman, Chung Mong-koo, was reportedly inspecting his company's second factory in Chennai.

As I say, Koreans are good people to do business with. But some might say that Mr Chung's case history further underlines the need for circumspection.

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Sunanda K Satta-Ray
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