Seoul is stepping into a much accelerated rate of internationalization over the last six months, so much that I would argue that Seoul should no longer be considered as representative of Korea, but put in a new class of global cities that are competing for global domination in economics, culture, education and prestige. That is to say, Seoul is going head to head with Dubai, Singapore, New York, London and Shanghai in a race for the top seat. You can refer to my previous short post on the next Byzantium for a few thoughts on this phenomenon.
For example Seoul is going through a wave of enormous building projects such as the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park that may well fundamentally alter the landscape of the city.
The global status of Seoul is a major impetus for these investments that go beyond the simple domestic demand. At the same time, Seoul has made massive investments to update foreign language signage, create a Seoul Global Center which employs internationals in key positions–and even administers entrepreneur programs for internationals wanting to start up a business in Seoul.
There are now many programs for multicultural education at schools in Seoul aimed at children like my daughter who have one or more parent who are not Korean. Whereas my children were constantly called “foreigners” at school before, there is now a space for “multiculturals” that is far more acceptable and even a matter of pride for kids.
Mayor Park Wansoon, the social activist elected mayor of Seoul last year, was featured in an article in the Hankyung Business Daily (한국경제신문) in Korean for plans to build a super luxury hotel in Seoul that would bring in many (wealthy) foreign guests. It was a bit of a surprise to see the advocate of social justice now taking the position—which makes sense—that “the attraction of capital through the attraction of tourism can be a new engine for Seoul’s future growth.”
Mayor Park also has engaged in serious discussions on Seoul’s tourism and foreign investment future with China International Travel Service, the goliath of Chinese tourism. A task force was established by the city of Seoul to look into ways to achieve these ambitious goals.
As far as the building of the planned luxury hotel is concerned, the Shangri-La Hotels have expressed considerable interest. It was in this context, by the way, that Mayor Park stressed the importance of securing investment from overseas Chinese to finance Seoul’s future economic development. The argument is legitimate, but we must remember that overseas Chinese had considerable influence in Korea in a previous age. They were then essentially forced out of the country by the government in the 1970s. In these developments we can detect a significant move away from the Korean argument for unity based on the concept of ethnic unity that undergird much of national policy over the last fifty years.
Another striking aspect of this shift in Seoul’s status comes with the announcement today that last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Professor Sargent of New York University will teach for two years at Seoul National University.
Konkuk University had already invited two Nobel Prize winners Nobel Prize winner Professor Robert D. Kornberg (chemistry) and Nobel Prize winner and Professor Zhores I. Alferov. (physics) to teach in Korea. But this longer commitment has the potential to significantly shift the global perception of Seoul. Seoul National University has been quite aggressive in recruiting outstanding faculty over the last few years. After a series of mishaps, SNU is at last becoming a good environment for international scholars.
I had seen a significant change in terms of the number of members of the global “creative class” who are wandering around Seoul looking for opportunities. It was once the case that beyond the protected domains of multinational corporations, most foreigners in Korea were missionaries, military personnel or English teachers. That is no longer the case. I have met some impressive individuals at our Asia Institute seminars with real vision of what they wish to achieve in Korea.
But there is more. Beyond the increase in the use of English, we now see a dramatic increase in the use of Chinese and Japanese. The main search engine for Korea Naver now features articles under “News” in English, Chinese and Japanese. Moreover, many bookstores are now equipped with software that can handle Chinese and Japanese book titles. That is so that if you can purchase a Japanese book at Kyobo Books the receipt will feature the book’s title in Japanese; the bookstore’s search engine allows multilingual searches.
There are now many restaurants in Seoul with signs written in Japanese, most of which have emerged in just the last year or so. Before that time, it would have been considered in very bad taste to have anything written in Japanese over a restaurant. Koreans were extremely sensitive to Japanese language as a reminder of the colonial era, but that aspect of Korea is changing rapidsly.
There is also much advertisement written up in Chinese aimed at Chinese living in Seoul. Many Chinese in Seoul have considerable disposal incomes and they have become critical customer for cell phone vendors.
Finally, at the very moment the Korean Wave has reached a new peak in Japan, we are seeing Japanese culture coming into Korea on a new scale. An increasing number of Japanese books are being translated into Korean. Japanese soap operas are in the wings for introduction into Korea and Japanese firms like Toyota and Kyosera are becoming quite aggressive in the Korean market.
These changes are tied to the on-going negotiations for a Korea-China-Japan Free Trade Agreement, no doubt being to some degree the results of those negotiations. Although I do not know anything about the content of those discussions, except the fact that President Lee Myung Bak suggested last week that a Korea-China FTA could be signed in less than two years, many are starting to see that process as far more realistic now than they did even a year ago. In fact, whereas many thought such a concept a pipe dream two years ago, now journalists suggest that a Korea-China FTA would be less problematic than the Korea-US FTA.