Story by: Elaine Ramirez, Photos by:
Change is here — ride the wave
Getting into business is tough. As a foreigner in South Korea, it’s a minefield. If you don’t have 300 million won in the bank and a Korean cosigner, spouse or parents, you usually can’t support your own visa even if you start a company here.
It has been only 10 years since the first foreigner in Korea opened a business of his own without outside aid. Expat Sean Watts made waves in 2005 when he opened Watts on Tap pub in Sinchon without a Korean business partner.
“Complications on the front lines, doing paperwork — this made actual business establishment initially illegal,” he recalls. “No authority was willing to take a chance and be first to sign and approve a foreigner.”
But little by little, opportunities are cracking open for expats to make a dent with their trade. The current Seoul government under Park Won-soon has been giving a noticeable and much-awaited boost to the foreign business climate by opening business support centers, streamlining paperwork and offering consulting to those who want to set up shop, particularly for start-ups with tech expertise. Foreign restaurateurs, craft brewers and other gastrophiles have transformed the food scene in Itaewon, Hongdae and beyond Seoul. (So much so that we’ve dedicated a whole section to those ambitious gastro-preneurs later in this issue.) Eat Your Kimchi, which started off as a humble video blog for family back home, is now a legitimate company and one of the most influential voices on K-pop for overseas fans. Expats are opening film companies, art galleries, business consultancies, real estate companies and more.
Likewise, mega corporations like Kia have hired foreign talent like design chief Peter Schreyer, now also president, to see them through the quickly evolving era of globalization. Regional governments are fishing for big money — to increasing success — with their free economic zones. More and more foreign companies are taking advantage of Korea’s free trade deals to enter the country and introduce new products. Namely, more cheese. Thanks, Costco and High Street Market.
“My business is here, it’s growing. I’m able to contribute,” says Steve McKinney, the head of Seoul Global Center who also runs his own consultancy. “Being an American here, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to meet a lot of people I never would have met otherwise.”
In politics, the story is different. The foreign presence is far less ambitious, with Philippine-born naturalized Korean Jasmine Lee being the flag bearer for multicultural representation. She works not only for ethnic minorities, but so that her children can have a better future.
“If there’s one thing that’s most important for me, it’s being a mother,” she tells Groove Korea. “In one interview I was asked why I went into politics. It’s not just politics, I told them. If I can make this society 0.001 percent better for my children, whether it be in politics or whatever it is, I am going to take it.”
With foreigners making up just 3 percent of the population, their presence in business and politics is still minor. The foreign business environment in 20 years’ time is anyone’s guess. The greater the positive influence foreigner-owned businesses make, we’d like to argue, the more accepting the country will become. There are still miles to go in terms of progress, but one thing’s certain: Change is here, and it’s only getting better.