Made in China

Went to the local E-mart a few nights ago. Standing around with my son while my wife finished the shopping we both got sucked into staring at a nearby flat-panel TV screen showing Madagascar 2. “Wow, look at that quality, and the price… but what the hell is a Haier?” The sales woman told us it was the latest model out of China, a big hit in Europe. Always wary of sales pitches I chose not to believe her spiel, assuming it was likely some no-name knock off.

This from Reuters:

Korea also faces stiff competition to hang onto its edge in sophisticated manufacturing from China itself. In electronics, Haier and Hisense have developed wide product lines while automakers from BYD to Geely have started to attract attention overseas.

I guess she was telling the truth afterall. In fact South Korea is facing increased challenges from its rising neighbor on all fronts, including the local mainstay. According to a London-based researcher, Chinese shipbuilders outstripped their South Korean rivals in orders this year. British author Simon Winchester begins his book on walking across Korea with a look at the country’s shipyards nearly twenty years ago, predicting that the sight before his eyes spells a death knell for England’s own shipping industry. I wonder if local manufacturers are now thinking the same thing when they look west.

Trade wars

It’s not all doom and gloom though. China may (or may not) move to allow its currency to appreciate against the dollar, which would be welcome news to the U.S. and columnists over at the IHT. For South Korea, analysts say a stronger yuan would mean “more demand for Korean goods on Chinese markets.” China is South Korea’s largest trading partner by the way and has been since 2003.

The bulk of that trade, however, isn’t in consumer goods but rather in materials used to produce finished exports. Per the Reuters article cited above:

Geographic proximity, cultural affinity and its own recent experience of economic development provided South Korea with a platform to reach out to China. Its companies — notably, electronics makers such as LG Electronics and Samsung — adapted their business models to send intermediate goods to China for assembly before selling the finished products abroad.

Such manufacturing inputs account for roughly half of all of Chinese imports. So as China’s export factories revved up production, South Korea and Taiwan, the two countries most integrated in their supply chain, reaped huge dividends.

China rising


All hail the idiot box


The medium is the message

“I want to watch a moooovie…” That’s become the near-daily mantra my son repeats as soon as he wakes up and right before going to bed. Power Rangers, Little Einsteins, Caillou… in truth it could probably be anything and he’d likely turn to stone in front of the glowing screen.

Which is great for me on a weekday at 7pm, dead tired and looking to tune out alongside him. But there’s no denying that he’s grown addicted to the TV, and while we’ve managed to curb his watching time to just a couple of hours per day the box’s presence, even when off, is magnetic.

Which is what drew me to this article from Foreign Policy. Living in one of the world’s most high-tech societies I naturally assumed that the revolution would indeed not be televised but rather Tweeted or Twittered or thumbed across the digital ether. Hard to believe the ol’ boob tube still has a few tricks up its sleeve.

According to the author, televsion programming could help to create

a world more equal for women, healthier, better governed, more united in response to global tragedy, and more likely to vote for local versions of American Idol than shoot at people.

Where’s that damn remote? In cities, towns and villages — even where there is no electricity — around the globe humans gather around their TVs like moths to a flame. One Indian lawmaker even encouraged residents to watch more so as to lower the country’s birthrate.

In olden days people had no other entertainment but sex, which is why they produced so many children…  it is important that there is electricity in every village so that people watch TV till late in the night. By the time the serials are over, they’ll be too tired to have sex and will fall asleep.

I guess it beats forced sterilisations, but with Baywatch the biggest television series ever with an estimated audience of 1 billion I have to wonder…

Television programming here in Korea is huge. I remember stepping into a local bunsikjeom (Korean style greasy spoon) for dinner once. Across from me sat these two leathery old men, chewing on raw chilie peppers, downing soju by the bottle and arguing with the waitress about who would marry who on the local soap opera playing on the screen above. Weird.

But then again, former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun reportedly gave his North Korean counterpart a box set of the drama Jewel in the Palace during his 2007 summit in Pyongyang.

Russian-born Korea scholar Andrei Lanov has long been trumpeting the use of DVDs and similar means to bring news of the outside world to North Koreans starved by their government’s self-imposed isolation.

Rumors of South Korean prosperity have begun to spread, assisted by popular smuggled DVDs of South Korean movies. The world’s most perfect Stalinist regime is starting to disintegrate from below.

According to Lankov, DVD technology is perfectly suited to the North Korean case given the relative affordabilty of players and discs. And while radios have their place in delivering subversive information, images showing the propserity of Seoul and surrounding areas  make it hard to swallow the line that the South is a bastion of poverty and misery.

Oh what a feeling – Hyundai

Via Reuters comes an analysis of the success that South Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia have had in recent months, particulalry in comparison to their Japanese rivals.

Hyundai has also struck gold with big operations in India and China — two of the fastest-growing markets. And ingenious marketing such as an offer to allow buyers to return vehicles if they lost their jobs within a year helped Hyundai and Kia increase sales even in the sinking U.S. market.

The volume growth has come hand in hand with industry-defying profit improvements. In July-September, Hyundai made a record net profit of 979 billion won ($847 million) — equal to the combined earnings of Toyota and Honda Motor that quarter.

For the sake of full disclosure I’ve driven a Hyundai for the past several years, first in the US because it came cheap and now in Korea because, well… because I’m in Korea.

While I’m loathe to heap scorn on our first Hyundai, an  Elantra — simply because like a loyal canine that refused to quit  it took my family and I as far afield as Vancouver and New Mexico — the thing rattled and shook whenever we approached the speed limit. The model I drive now is a vast improvement, far more solid and better milage, but in the end I doubt either will outlast the 25 year old Toyota Camry my folks still drive with 200,000+ miles on it.

But anyway, some of the reasons cited in the Reuter’s piece for Hyundai’s success are the local currency’s relative weakness compared to the Japanese yen, which aid in boosting exports.

This then dovetails with the second reason, which has to do with Seoul’s free-for-all market policies that has led to “more than 40 free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries ranging from the United States to India. Japan has less than a third as many, almost all of them with the rest of Asia.”

What this means for Korea was spelled out in a recent report that warned of a too-heavy reliance on international trade.

South Korea’s dependence on overseas trade exceeded 90 percent of the national income last year for the first time, leaving the nation’s economy more vulnerable to fluctuations in global market conditions…

Comparable ratios for Japan stood at 31.6 percent, while those for India, Australia and Britain were 37.7 percent, 39.1 percent and 41.2 percent, respectively, suggesting that those countries have well-nurtured domestic markets…

Lingering uncertainty in the job market is a major source of concern for leaders in Seoul when it comes to the health of South Korea’s domestic market. While unemployment figures have been improving there’s concern that they could drop off again once a government-led job creation plan ends this month. According to Yonhap irregular employees make up some 35 percent of the nation’s workforce.

The latest figures on household income aren’t promising either, with average household income fallingand  for the second straight quarter with a family of two earning just under US$3000 per month.

Where the Hell is Matt?

Wow! Really inspiring. Just discovered this and glad I did. Check out the spot at the DMZ…

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Where the Hell is Matt? (2008)“, posted with vodpod

Please, oh please don’t let McCain win

Stepping away from Korea for a second to offer up a plea/prayer/hope (call it what you will) that McCain loses this November. Speaking with a young Korean American colleague who hails from the deep south (not Korea, but the US) the other day, I was a little surprised to learn that she is leaning towards McCain this election. She cited Obama’s “less than reassuring” health plan as one of her main reasons.

Now, not to sound callous, but I could give a toss about domestic issues. Those will get worked out, some way or another, by congress or local governments. My feeling is that what is needed now, more than anything else, is someone to guide the (misguided) US back into the real World. Not some terrorist swamp that needs to be bombed back into shape, but a tech savvy (which means knowing how to use a computer), competitive, and eager world filled with potential and a growing — and as yet untapped — desire for some kind of integration.

An editorial by Roger Cohen in the IHT yesterday spoke of American exceptionalism, the kind Palin loads into the twin-barrels of her shotgun politics, or the kind Obama (hopefully) will offer. I’d add that one of America’s (and Americans’) most exceptional qualities is the ability to integrate, and that is what I expect from an Obama presidency.

A McCain victory will be a disaster for the world, a continuation and worsening of the state of affairs that the Bush administration has helped bequeth to the planet. And for those who do put priority on domestic affairs, then take a look at another editorial in the IHT by Garrison Keillor about McCain’s involvement in Wall Street affairs. It ain’t FOX News, but then what is.

McCain’s generation

Watching a CNN special on John McCain yesterday I was reminded of my grandfather and a conversation I had with him shortly before he passed away. He had been trying to read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, but ultimately gave it up because, as he said, “it wasn’t for his generation.”

Seeing friends, acquaintances, and fellow soldiers recall the young McCain, I couldn’t help but think of my grandpa, an East Coaster who for decades ran a successful business on Wall Street, a Renaissance man of the Twentieth Century. He just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) wrap his head around a book sub-titled A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, about a new global era and how it came to be.

My grandfather taught me a great deal. He had deeply ingrained values that made him a respected and admired person in whatever circles he found himself in, and I take those lessons to heart. But he was also a man of his time, and though he tried to blend into this new century, his spirit was forever a part of the past. 

No doubt McCain was a valorous soldier and an honorable man, but he is a man of another era, like my grandfather shaped by a world that in many ways is far different than the one towards which we are now heading.

Korea 3rd most adaptable nation

Anti-beef rally in Seoul

Anti-beef rally in Seoul

Ummm… hmmmm… really?

According to the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea ranked third among OECD nations in terms of its adaptabiltiy to globalization in a study conducted by the Confederation of Danish Industry. Some of the benchmarks used include education levels, growth and development, and export capacity. I’m assuming the anti-US beef protests last month occurred too late to be accounted for in the study.

Anyway, my initial reaction after reading the article was supercilious, given the nationalism, xenophobia and racism I’ve witnessed since arriving last year. I thought about the things I’ve dealt with personally while living here, a minority in a country that still cherishes its ethnic homogeneity. How can that qualify Korea as an “adaptable” country? How can its immigration policies possibly be considered globally oriented?

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