When Mr. Ko Sang-koo, as a Korean businessman, first came to Hanoi 13 years ago, he drew many blank stares from native Vietnamese.
“In the past, Korean was not familiar with Hanoi, and vice versa,” Ko Sang-koo, now president of the Korean Society of Hanoi (KSH) said in an interview with The Overseas Koreans Newspaper in Seoul.
And precisely because few Koreans had heard of or actually set foot on the capital city of the communist country then, Ko eagerly took this well-timed opportunity to invest in Hanoi.
The reason Ko chose the relatively-unknown Hanoi was because he found that there was strong potential for future development. However, nothing was gained without pains.
Although the newly industrializing country had been growing faster, as widely expected, it provided a rare chance for an outsider due to “anti-foreign” sentiment.
“The market remained restrictive for certain businesses such as retail and distribution. They hadn‘t opened up considerably for foreigners,” Ko said, adding that many Korean businesses were engaged in joint ventures with local partners, including Korean husband with a Vietnamese native.
Unfortunately, some of them were involved in a cheating scam which attempted to defraud Koreans by falsely saying that there would be a great chance to make money.
After collecting huge amounts of money from Korean investors, they deliberately delayed implementation of their commitments without any refund.
Ko said that he himself was also a victim of the scam and suffered an investment loss, adding that “I lacked sufficient understanding of local business practices, laws and systems.”
“At first, the couple seemed to avoid telling me what's going on. Husband attributed the postpone to his wife and she then tried to pin the blame on the inflexible and bureaucratic system. No one would admit legal responsibility,” Ko recalled.
In addition, authoritarian bureaucracy was another barrier to operate business in Vietnam. Although investment was the most efficient way to revive the country, Hanoi was considered a daunting market among many Korean businesses due to lack of flexibility in the administration.
He was deeply disappointed. Even then he felt they seemed uncooperative and hostile. But He never gave up on his dream of the market dubbed “post China,” and continuously moved forward.
His continued efforts to overcome challenges finally bore fruit. He obtained a license to set up a supermarket chain in Hanoi. This was the first time that foreigner wins a business license in Vietnamese retail and distribution sector, except for a state-owned enterprise.
Emphasizing Vietnam's increasingly cosmopolitan society, President Ko noted that much has changed in the reception and regard of foreigners there since he first visited Vietnam in 2002.
“In the past, many Koreans associated Vietnam with cheap labor and lower quality products, but now Vietnam War veterans visit Vietnam and are overwhelmed by how developed it is,” he added.
Vietnam has changed a lot in the past 13 years.
Today, Vietnam is Korea's most important market and some 120,000 Korean nationals currently reside and work in the leading nation on the Indochina Peninsula according to the KSH.
“I have a big responsibility to behave properly and make a favorable impression,” Ko said, adding that Vietnamese remind him of Koreans.
“They are warm, affectionate and have a Korea-friendly attitude,” he emphasized.
In relation to Korean's roles, President Ko also stressed in this interview that the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR).
“One of the top priorities is to become a responsible community. On top of achieving common benefits in the Korean community, we will make the best efforts to return many values back to Vietnam,” he said.
“In particular, we have set our sights on the poor, who are struggling with poverty. we will channel bigger efforts into sharing our warm hearts with Vietnamese,” he added.
In terms of economic benefits, it will also be a precious opportunity for Korean nationals living in Hanoi. Because it will provide chances to reinforce positive images about Korea.
“It is painful but absolutely necessary for Koreans to gain a fairly good reputation, which in turn will put us in a position to support the development of Korean companies effectively in Vietnam,” he said, adding that he hopes more Korean companies would find business opportunities in Vietnam.
“I will try to convince Korean busineses that the Vietnamese market is not uncommonly difficult, but that a long-term view with the aim of building strong relationships should be adopted,” he said.
In this interview, he stressed the need for the Korean government to expand assistance to small- and medium-sized ‘hangul hakkyo’ (Korean language school).
“Korean community have run several schools, and the number of ‘Dongpo’ (overseas Koreans) kids who would like to learn the Korean language and culture has increased because of Vietnam's recent rapid growth. Their national identity is directly linked to Korean language education,” Ko said.
Meanwhile, the Korean community in Hanoi held the first Korea-Vietnam Festival, which was held at Quan Ngua plaza in Hanoi on April. 11.
The event was in several divisions - Korean singer contest, traditional game and K-pop contest.
Singer Park Sang-min and Rookie K-pop girl group “Switch” were invited to perform on stage. Comedian Lee Chang-myoung and Cho Young-koo also joined the festival as MCs.
“I hope this festival brings greater harmony to Korean community in Hanoi and will be useful in achieving our goals. It's also about showing respect the work ethnic Koreans do here.”
By Kyoum Hur firstname.lastname@example.org