In the first half of my seventh interview about the fast paced and high pressure nature of Korean society, I talk with Byun Ho San. Mr. Byun is a 55 year old industrialist who grew up in a rural community to the Northwest of Seoul in the aftermath of the Korean War. In childhood he farmed his family’s land with oxen and wooden carts. Since then Ho San has risen to astounding heights – he is now the owner of the worlds second largest supplier of conductive plastics and his client list includes giants like Samsung and Texas instruments. An utterly modest man, it is all but impossible to get him to admit the true extent of his achievements.
The interview I did with Mr Byun was much longer than usual, mostly due to the wealth of information he was willing to share, and because of the depth of his insights into the forces driving his society. For the sake of readability, I have split the transcription into two parts. In this first half, The Birth of Bali Bali, Mr. Byun describes the events and the political situation which gave birth to Korea’s notorious social hustle.
I will post a condensed version of the full interview later; I’m try to get all of these interviews edited down to an appropriate length for their upcoming print publication, and its eating up most of my time.After doing quite a few of these interviews, I want to make it clear at this point that all of the people I have talked to are proud to be Korean and love their country. The topic being discussed is an unfortunately negative aspect of Korean culture, and therefore elicits appropriately negative responses. Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.
Byun Ho San, 55 – Industrialist
The Birth of Bali Bali
Most Koreans tend to be very hurried; I guess its our new culture. When my parents were young, they didn’t hurry in the same way. After the Korean War, the Korean situation was the worst in the world – we were one of the poorest countries, like the Congo or somewhere like that. The country was devastated. A lot of people died. Our parents educated us that we should work very hard, and study very hard, otherwise we could not survive. There was no food and nothing to drink.
For survival [during the war years] my parents had to really hurry. They worked very hard, but at that time they were already adults. When the Japanese occupied Korea, there was no need to hurry up because there was no reason – they couldn’t make money anyways. There was a dictatorship, so even if they hurried up they could not gain any extra money.
It was the children of the wartime who were the first to really experience the bali bali (quickly quickly) culture. There was no food and we could only eat once or twice per day. The Americans gave us a lot of low-grade corn and during my elementary school days, and we used to have cornmeal every day. There was no food, so this was very delicious. There was no rice, no bread.
Whenever we came home from school, we had to work with our parents on the farms using oxen and raising chickens and pigs. During the daytime we had to work very hard and at night we had to study. Back then I had a good memory so I had to study a lot. But we had no electricity so we had to study using lanterns – it was very unfashionable! When I would wake up the next morning and look in the mirror, I would have a black nose from the fumes. This was not a very long time ago.
When I was 10, electricity came to the countryside. The people were very surprised; it was very bright. It looked like we were liberated from the black world. We had serious hardships during our childhood days, so I could taste the value of electricity. The young generation had to work to overcome a lot of obstacles.
The famous dictator [Park Chung Hee] did many things for Korea. He ruled by dictatorship, but he could not help it. It was a very dangerous situation; if Korea had tried democracy, we would have been bankrupt – like the Philippines. Previously the Philippines had been very rich, much richer than Korea. Park Chung Hee made his best effort to improve our life quality and came up with a lot of ideas to develop and improve our country. He made a policy of rural revolution and he spread a “can do attitude”. So people were continuously told “we can do it”. They broadcast it over the radio: If we co-operate together, we can do it. If we was to be successful, we had to hurry up. There was not enough time for anyone, including me. Because of this new attitude, Korean people could reach our current status as a developed country.
So my generation all worked together under this attitude. Now I have two daughters, and I had to educate them in the same way – even 10 years ago Korea was still developing. Also, Korean mothers are special. They are very diligent and they focus all their energy on the education of their children. I think this is the same as mothers from other places, but Korean mothers are much more aggressive!
So bali bali culture made our country what it is. When I started my business, I though that there would be no chance to overcome Japanese technology. When I was 35 I had a chance to go to Tokyo – I wanted to import antistatic products. It was my first visit and I was very curious about Japan. When I arrived at the airport I was very surprised. At that time there were not many cars in Korea, but in Tokyo I could see so many luxurious cars. I couldn’t imagine how Korea could overcome. I was humbled.
Now 30 years has passed. Samsung started by importing technology for black and white TVs from Japan. They started to make superconductors, which the analysts said was crazy. For seven years they had a deficit. We never could have imagined that Samsung would conquer them all. It is because of the bali bali attitude. Samsung works twice as much as their competitors like Sony and General Electric. By working hard and by continuous imitation, the level of technology is the same as international companies, and more.
Thinking of when I was a young man in Japan, I could not believe that I would see a Korean company overcome a Japanese company. But right now it is reality. It is the same with many industries. Pohang Steel is a top business and our shipbuilding is the best. One by one we are becoming number one in the world. It is the same “can do” attitude that was repressed by the Japanese for 35 years – no rights, no culture. Now we know the real value of Koreans. Korean people now know how to win – it is bali bali.
This is very useful for industry, but it is bad for the soul.