Sweet taste of success

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 February, 2011, 12:00am

Koreans - dynamos when it comes to work or play - are fond of socialising. In former times, it was the bathhouse or the barber's shop where - especially in the depths of winter - friends and neighbours could warm up and chill out at the same time, spending very little money in return for several hours' relaxation.

While both venues are still popular in South Korea's cities, especially in the capital Seoul, they've been eclipsed by the coffee shop. Groups of friends happily while away the hours over a cup or two of java, executives drop in to nurse their laptops, and youngsters generally regard them as a safe yet mildly sophisticated spot for a first date.

The big international chains are well represented, of course, with Starbucks and The Coffee Bean being among the more prominent. Local enterprises have been quick to follow suit: Caffe Bene went from fledgling start-up to more than 300 branches in a matter of years. And none are short of customers, despite the fact that some of the more flashy blends may cost as much as 6,000 won (HK$42) a cup.

Niche markets and competitive pricing coming as second nature to Korean businessmen and women; it was not long before a cut-rate option appeared on the streets. A basic cuppa at Manoffin, the new kid on the coffee block, is priced at just 790 won, which still leaves the company with a tidy profit. While Manoffin has less cachet than some of its rivals, its inexpensive sachets may well give rise to a price war in the near future.

South Korea's coffee stakes might well be seen as a metaphor for the whole country. Rapid changes have brought new innovations which have fast been accepted by the urban elite.

A desire to succeed on the world economic and political scene has been pushed forward by hard work and canny business acumen. While Korea's ride to success has experienced some dips along the way, on the whole the future looks rosy.

Looking purely at the statistics, the country ranks pretty well, compared with its Asian neighbours and in the global sense. South Korea's market economy is rated 15th in the world by nominal GDP and 12th by purchasing power parity, putting it securely in the bracket of the G20 major economies.

Marked out as a high-income developed country, with an emerging economy, South Korea is a respected member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Starting in the 1960s, having made a determined recovery from the war which ravaged the peninsula the previous decade, South Korea soon won a reputation as one of the 'Asian Tigers'.

The country had one of the world's fastest-growing economies from the early 1960s to the late 1990s, and is still one of the best performing in the 21st century, along with Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan.

South Koreans refer to their country's phenomenal growth as the 'Miracle on the Han River' - not without some justification. Possessing the bare minimum of natural resources and suffering from overpopulation in its relatively small territory - which had a knock-on effect on population growth and the formation of a stable internal consumer market - South Korea latched on to the idea of an export-oriented economic strategy to fuel its growth and, by last year, the country had become the seventh largest exporter and 10th largest importer in the world. This is an achievement that few other nations around the world have matched in so short a space of time.

While local and international political events can have an adverse effect on Korea's stock market and credit rating, renowned financial organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund, have been quick to highlight the resilience of the South Korean economy against various economic crises, citing a low level of state debt and robust fiscal reserves that can be mobilised at short notice to address any unexpected financial emergencies.

South Korea was one of the few developed countries able to sidestep a deep recession during the global financial crisis, and its economic growth rate is expected to reach about 6 per cent this year, a significant recovery from rates of 2.3 per cent in 2008 and 0.2 per cent in 2009 when the crisis hit.

And marking its place well towards the centre of the geopolitical stage, South Korea hosted the fifth G20 summit in Seoul last November, not only adding to its prestige but also boosting the country's economy by a predicted 31 trillion won, or 4 per cent of the nation's 2010 GDP, and creating an estimated 160,000 jobs.

It's not just in the field of coffee where South Korea can come up with successful innovation. Robotics has been a central focus of research and development in the country.

In 2009, the government announced plans to build robot-themed parks in Incheon and Masan with a mix of public and private funding.

More exotically, plans to create English-teaching robot assistants to make up the shortfall of teachers were announced last February, with the robots due to be deployed to most pre-schools and kindergartens by 2013. Robotics are also incorporated in the entertainment sector; the Korean Robot Game Festival has been one of the highlights on the country's expo calendar every year since 2004.