26 Sep 2017 20:26 IST

Sleepless in Seoul

A fulfilling two weeks spent at KAIST, with field visits, projects and adventures

It was eight o’clock in the evening on August 13. We, the students of the full-time Executive Post-Graduate Programme in Management (EPGP) from IIM Bangalore, were lugging our bags, getting ready to load them onto the buses waiting to ferry us to the airport. The day we had all been waiting for had finally arrived!

With term two — the most dreaded of all — done and dusted, we were on our way to Seoul, South Korea. The atmosphere in the bus during the nearly 90-minute ride to the airport, was heady. Portable speakers were brought out; there was unrestrained merriment as people sang and danced. The mood had been set for the upcoming fortnight.

Layover in Hong Kong

As soon as the flight took off — 30 minutes past midnight — all the pent-up exhaustion and fatigue kicked in and knocked us out. We woke up to a wonderful view of the blue sea and small islands with green-topped hillocks — we were about to land in Hong Kong!

Some of us had a fairly long layover, which allowed us to visit the city for a few hours. After heading to the immigration and securing clearance to enter the city, we took the airport express train to see whatever we could of the place.

The weather, though not hot, was quite humid. Our destination was the promenade, from where the famous skyline of Hong Kong, across the sea, could be seen in all its glory. The route took us through some of the most upmarket localities. The skyline itself was quite impressive, and I’m sure it would have been a sight to behold at night. After spending about an hour, we headed back to the airport.

Initial perceptions

We landed in Seoul quite late but were warmly welcomed by the students of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), our host school.

What immediately struck us about the South Koreans was their humility and hospitality — two traits we encountered, over and over again during our two-week stay in the city. We reached Gangnam Family Hotel well past midnight and I, at least, had no energy left except to fix myself a quick, ready-to-eat meal before snoring the night away.

A 9 am departure the next day sounded positively horrendous but after four months of hard work at IIM-B, we were well trained for tough times.

We spent the 30-minute bus ride to KAIST taking in the sights of the city, which looked like an infrastructural marvel (We later learnt this period of rapid development was called the ‘Miracle on the Han River’, which saw the transformation of the nation from a developing to a developed one).

Lectures, fields visits and more

We were welcomed to KAIST by Professor Betty Chung. The day consisted of three lectures, the first of which was taken by Prof Chung herself. She talked about the important characteristics of Korean culture and also about the country’s meteoric rise from being one of the poorest nations in the world in the 1950s to one of the most developed societies today.

I was particularly amazed by the choice of words such as jung and noonchi that were used to communicate cultural aspects integral to South Korea.

The second lecture was by Dilip Sundaram, the President of Mahindra Korea and CFO of SsangYong Motor Company. His session was peppered with incisive questions that put us in his shoes and forced us to think like a C-level executive in charge of transforming a company.

As aspiring business leaders, this session taught us lessons that will remain with us throughout our careers. His emphasis on perfection in a transformation context, and his highlighting of Korea as an execution specialist country really left an impression on us.

The third lecture was by the Indian ambassador to South Korea, Vikram Doraiswamy. We consider ourselves lucky to be able to listen, in person, to a someone who is not only a distinguished civil servant but also a knowledgeable industry expert.

His understanding of how the capabilities of Korean companies can be matched with the needs of the Indian market was impressive to say the least. His central message of creatively managing India’s unique traits to make it attractive for Korean companies to invest in, was the key takeaway.

Days in between

The following days had lectures by James Rooney, who provided us an outsider’s perspective of not only South Korea but the other two North-East Asian economies: China and Japan. The lecture by Professor Leighanne Yuh, a historian, gave us the backstory of South Korea’s economic rise. Her detailing of President Park Chung-hee’s era during the 1960s and 1970s was particularly insightful.

We went on field visits to the Samsung Innovation Museum and the Korea Exchange (KRX) in Busan.

There were two visits that helped us understand South Korea’s culture better: Nanta and Kicks. The former is a cooking-based mime show that amazed us with its speed, coordination, and skill, while the latter is a taekwondo show by the national team that combines martial arts, storytelling, and technology.

After our visit to Busan, we found time to visit the beach.

Flights of fantasy

The best part of the trip was saved for the last. Prior to our departure to South Korea, my class had been divided into groups of seven each. Each group was to work with a Korean company on a project.

Two groups were drawn to work with the Indian Embassy of South Korea, and I was in one of those. On the penultimate day of our stay in South Korea, quite unexpectedly, we were granted permission to visit the headquarters of Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) with relation to our project, thanks to the efforts of Parth Sharma — Vice Chairman, Indian Chamber of Commerce in Korea.

KAI’s headquarters is situated in Sacheon, a four-hour bus ride away from Seoul. We were staring at the prospect of travelling eight hours for a two-hour meeting with a 9 am departure time for the airport next day!

But the KAI visit was worth every bit of our time and energy. We interacted with Dr Choi — Senior Manager and Chief, International Marketing Division, KAI — who was kind enough to explain, in detail, KAI’s business and the general landscape of South Korea’s dealings with other countries in the defence aviation sector. We were also shown around the assembly line of the company’s fighter and trainer jets, and helicopters. We were also given a glimpse of the cockpit of T-50, KAI’s advanced jet trainer.

Memories are made of this

Besides formal lectures and field visits, our personal adventures and outings contributed a lot to the entire Korean experience. One of my first destinations in Seoul was the Cheonggyecheon stream, which, in the aftermath of the Korean War, was nothing more than raw sewage. But it has now been restored with a walkway along the stream, making it an excellent public space.

We also frequented various shopping hubs such as the popular Gangnam Street, the sprawling Lotte Department Store, the crowded by-lanes of Myengdong (the street food on offer, especially the deep fried ice-cream, is a foodie’s delight), the underground markets, and the buzzing night market at Dongdaemun (I like the name a lot. Seems worthy of a boss villain in an epic Oriental RPG video game).

The Changgyeonggung Palace was a pleasant surprise. With its modest furnishings and simple architecture, it was unlike any other palace that I had ever seen. The striking feature of this palace, and I suspect the other four palaces in Seoul, is the abundance of open spaces in comparison with courtrooms and royal residences.

Another instance that made my trip memorable was the rain playing spoilsport twice — once during the hike in Bukhansan National Park, and the second time during a trip to Nami Island. During the former instance, we still managed a decent hike that afforded us breathtaking views of gushing streams and tranquil Buddhist temples. In the latter instance, we managed to see Gapyeong, a picturesque little town close to Nami Island. The twenty-minute walk, tumbling up and down Gapyeong’s rolling terrain flanked by tall mountains and under the fading light of the evening sun, was an experience of a lifetime.

I have experienced the sun and rain of the Korean summer and hope to visit this beautiful country in all its glorious colours and meet its wonderful people sometime later during a Korean autumn. Gamsahamnida Korea!