Out of the Far East and in your face...

South Korea may have been warmed by Japan's rising sun but its culture is wildly different: vivid, vital and crazy. As the Korean company LG prepares to bring 6,000 jobs to Wales, Peter Popham explains what makes its people tick
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The Independent Online
What do we know about South Korea? They eat dogs, don't they? Well they do (it's said to enhance virility), though more surreptitiously since they learnt how much certain countries disapprove. Charles and Di had their most public and embarrassing ruction on a state visit to the place. Korea is the land of the Moonies. And suddenly this pipsqueak country, just about the only place where the Cold War, with frigid venom, is still being waged, is exporting employment to Britain as though they had just stumbled on a giant jobs well.

LG, known formerly and more quaintly as Lucky Goldstar, is to build a semiconductor fabrication plant, "fab" for short, in Wales, employing in the end some 6,000 people. Daewoo is expected to announce plans for a new car plant in Britain in the near future, which will employ 5,000- plus, and Hyundai, Daewoo's deadly rival, is expected to follow suit some time next year.

When Japanese industry came to Britain in force 15 or so years ago, the culture missionaries were close behind, and soon most people had an inkling of what the Japanese were about, their sushi and slurping and bowing and so on. The embedding of karaoke in ordinary British life - using the original Japanese word, correctly spelt - is a sign of how thorough (and mostly unconscious) the process of Japanisation has been.

South Korea is every bit as distinctive as Japan, and in some respects considerably more endearing. But for most of us it's a dog-eating, Moonie- mad blank.

Like the other Asian "tigers", Korea has crawled out of Japan's shadow - or flourished in Japan's strong sunshine, depending on how you choose to look at it - over the past 20 years. A relatively small country (44 million in the south, another 23 million in the north) squeezed between Japan and China, Korea is sometimes described as the Ireland of Asia; its history has been dominated by those powerful neighbours. Its vassal relationship to China was disrupted by a Japanese invasion at the end of the 16th century, then, three centuries later, after defeating Russia, Japan invaded again, annexing the country in 1910. Korea became Japan's trophy, her entry ticket to the imperialists' club. The Japanese proved ruthless rulers, attempting to stamp out the Korean language and identity, and using hundreds of thousands of Koreans for slave labour. Even today you can still find aged Koreans who speak Japanese fluently - and delight in using it to execrate their former rulers. When the Japanese finally quit the peninsula upon their defeat in 1945, they left behind a legacy of poisonous hatred.

But they left also the distinctive Japanese attitude to the West which was not (in the old Chinese mode) to disdain Western ways and immerse oneself in the classics, but to beat the West at its own materialistic game. When the Japanese built tram lines in Seoul in the Twenties, the trams had to stop frequently while the drivers roused and shooed away indigent Koreans sleeping in their path. The Koreans petitioned their colonial rulers, demanding in the name of humanity that the trams should halt until the sleepers awoke naturally. That's how wedded Korea was at the time to western notions of urban efficiency and time-keeping. But 30 years on, they had learnt Japan's lessons well, and once the wounds of civil war had begun to heal, they were ready to enter the modern fray on their own terms.

Given this intertwined history, it is not surprising that much of the country's post-war development has mimicked Japan's. The foundation of the economy are the so-called chaebols or conglomerates, inspired by the old Japanese zaibatsu: huge enterprises, comprising heavy and light manufacturing of bewildering variety, self-financed by their own banks, and enjoying a cosy relationship with government, which directs the companies into specific, targeted areas.

Recently the love affair between government and chaebols has started to cool, but all the Korean firms that have made an impact abroad are of this type, including LG, Samsung, Hyundai and Daewoo. To give an example of their versatility, Daewoo builds cars, ships, microwave ovens, televisions, refrigerators, washing machines and car stereos, as well as the semiconductors that make most of them tick. It also builds (in Vietnam) roads and houses. Given a heavily protected domestic economy, a fired-up workforce and benign authorities, success is not surprising, but its speed and degree has been stunning, not least to the Japanese.

Yet it is a mistake to think of the Koreans as Japanese trading under a slightly different flag. The character of the people and their culture is radically different. Japan is consensual, ritualistic, methodical, subtle, shy; Korea is confrontational, spontaneous, coarse-grained, often explosively extroverted. You can live in Japan for years and never witness physical violence; within hours of first arriving in Korea some 15 years ago, I was assaulted in broad daylight by two drunken office workers for the crime of talking to a woman on the street.

Japan is so emotionally inhibited that it is infectious; going to Korea, where you are hit, the moment you arrive, by an overpowering smell of garlic, is like removing a corset. People walk along hand in hand, singing. They have stand-up arguments in restaurants. The students have been fighting the authorities through clouds of tear gas so long and valiantly that their children - still fighting the same old battles - are rumoured to be immune to the gas.

Nothing better illustrates the distinctiveness of Korean industry than Daewoo, the chaebol that is expected to announce plans to build a plant in Britain in the near future. Giant Japanese companies may be headed by a prominent figure, like the members of the Toyoda family who run Toyota, but these are always in a sense figureheads, whose role is to symbolise the firm and harmonise the views of their subordinates. Daewoo, by contrast, belongs to its founder, Kim Woo Choong, quite as unequivocally as Ford ever belonged to Henry. The company and its 125,000 employees hang upon his every whim. He is everywhere, doing everything.

Several years ago he went to live in his company's shipyard in the south of the country, which had been beset by strikes. When he moved out, it had become one of the most efficient shipbuilders in the world. Now he has moved to the Pupyung car plant near Seoul, and is attempting to repeat the performance there.

Daewoo bought a car design and development firm in Worthing to help it to produce a new range of world-beating vehicles. When this firm and two other design consultancies drew up rival schemes for Daewoo's new four- wheel drive, Mr Kim flew to Worthing to pronounce judgement in person.

This highly autocratic executive style is more easily comprehended in the West than the slow-moving, opaque, consensual style favoured by Japanese companies. But it means Korean companies may also embody familiar western weaknesses. The Japanese have the credit for inventing the fault-free automobile; the Koreans threaten to take us back to the age of the old banger. Autocar magazine judged Daewoo's Nexia and Espero models to be the worst family cars of 1995. The Espero, it said, was "shockingly mediocre" - and in February of this year, all 8,000 Nexias sold in Britain were recalled when faults suggested there was a risk of them bursting into flames.

Yet it would be a mistake to start sneering, because the Koreans are only just beginning to get into their stride. And Daewoo's purchase of the design firm in Worthing, and their hiring of a German, Dr Ulrich Bez, fresh from Porsche and BMW, as the company's vice-president, suggests that the Koreans are refreshingly free of the insularity and tribalism that inhibits Japanese firms from involving foreigners in their operations at a high level.

Most of us have at least nibbled on a raw fish, would recognise an ikebana flower arrangement if we bumped into it and would know what we were expected to do in a karaoke bar. Korea, however, has yet to impinge upon us culturally. Its international image has never fully recovered from the war: veterans' memories of the bitter fighting and the atrocious winters have coloured our view of the country ever since. If the arrival of LG, Daewoo and the rest opens our minds to the colours and moods of a beautiful and vital nation, it will be enriching in more ways than one.

A SHORT GUIDE TO KOREA

Names: most people seem to be called Kim, Park or Lee. The paucity of surnames in use is a striking feature of the country, emphasising its equally striking ethnic homogeneity.

Flag: a deeply philosophical design, the white background is said to represent Confucian purity or the Buddhist concept of emptiness. In the centre is the Taoist symbol for the balance of harmony between opposites, yang (hot, heaven, day, male, action, etc) coloured red at the top, and yin (cold, earth, night, etc) coloured blue underneath.

Religions: Confucianism and Buddhism are fundamental to Korea's religious traditions, but at a more populist level Korea is the country of shamanism: rituals are enacted by a mudang (priest) to bring luck on numerous occasions, such as setting out on a journey. Since the war, Christianity has made amazing advances in the South, and today Korea's cities are dotted with huge new churches.

Costume: for women, long, billowing hanbok in gorgeous pinks, yellows and greens, with a bow at the breast and a full skirt that gives a slightly pregnant look. For men, loose coat and trousers of white hemp, and an array of hats. Traditional costume is little worn today, except for special occasions.

Housing: the most distinctive feature of the traditional brick house is the ondol, a highly efficient form of underfloor heating. Consumption of wood for fuel helps explain why much of the country lost its tree cover long ago.

Taboos: don't point, or beckon by crooking the finger; instead raise the hand palm upwards and flutter the fingers. Don't stick chopsticks upright into rice: they resemble burning sticks of incense, and suggest death. If you're male, don't strike up conversations in public with women (see main text). Don't write in red ink, which conveys hostility.

TEN WAYS SOUTH KOREA HAS PERMEATED OUR LIVES

The LG (formerly Lucky Goldstar) Electronics factory in Newcastle manufactures 600,000 television sets and the same number of microwave ovens each year for the Western European market.

UK sales of all Korean car makes - among them Daewoo, Hyundai and Kia - were around 45,000 in 1995. Last year Daewoo sold around 13,000 cars in the UK, its most popular model being the Nexia.

Samsung, the world's 14th biggest company, manufactures microwave ovens and PC monitors in the UK. From early 1997 it plans to produce fax machines, colour display tubes and personal computers, but in its home country, the company also builds roads, runs hotels, operates telecom networks, processes foods and owns newspapers.

In Manchester and London in particular, the Korean restaurant business is thriving. As with other Asian cuisines, rice is the staple, and is accompanied by a number of side dishes. Kimchi, a highly seasoned fermented vegetable dish, is the best known among foreigners, while most commonly used vegetables are radishes, Chinese cabbage, garlic, hot pepper and leeks.

Predictably perhaps, Korean beer is now finding its way to British shores. The main brands, Hite and Caas, go for around pounds 3.40 a bottle at London's Shilla restaurant in Great Marlborough Street, W1.

Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee made a solid critical impression last year with Native Speaker, the story of a Korean-American in New York.

Korean piano-maker Young Chang produces a range of inexpensive but hard- wearing instruments, used by the Royal Academy of Music for student practice.

Fifteen Korean banks have established branches in the City of London, among them the Korea Exchange Bank, the Korea Development Bank, the KorAm Bank and the Korea First Bank.

Korea continues to increase its share of the world's shipbuilding market. It now has 16.7 per cent of the market, much to the detriment of the West: in May this year, three major European shipyards announced they were to close.

Taekwondo is the most famous traditional martial art of Korea; it is to be an official Olympic sport from the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

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