business travel south korea

Korea Diary

Pangyo, Seoul: View from a guest room, Courtyard Hotel

Pangyo, Seoul: View from a guest room, Courtyard Hotel

Arrival

We reached Seoul transiting Taipei, where we exited the plane and emptied selves and carry-on bags for a third security check.

It has been over twenty years since I went last to Taipei, and my memories from then are the pared systems in Taiwanese factories that deliver goods without drama. This time, during this fly-by, I saw the terrain round Taipei was all flatland, with patches of wet farms along the approach to the city, and many waterbodies — roughly circular tanks with green trims round them. The tanks kept showing up until the outer reaches of the airport.

Bangalore was served in historical times by some 260 interconnected water tanks. Houses sit on those tank beds now, and suffer flooding at the lightest rain.


It was afternoon when we landed in Seoul. The taxi driver couldn’t train his GPS. He repeated the words “Marriott Panjo” into it. His app couldn’t locate the hotel.

“Courtyard … Courtyard…,” we said. “Marriott … Marriott …” he went. At the first toll plaza that came up he pulled to the side, beside a clump of healthy young Korean pines. “See,” he said, grinning, pushing the button on the fare meter. “Stop. See? Stop. Stop.”

“Good,” I said. “It stop. Very good.”

He went to the back of the car and returned in less than a minute. My wife and I worked Google Maps on our phones. “Strange,” I said to her, because Google Maps kept saying, “Try again.” “This is an IT-friendly nation. Networks should work.” Anyway, the driver, now drawing his seatbelt, was laughing. The directions had come up on his monitor. How so? Some tough talking to his car outside? Had he cuffed its backside for good measure?

“Now start,” he said, and laughed again, turning on the fare meter. “Start.”

“Very good,” I said. “It start.”

We settled, and silence ruled the hour it took to reach the hotel.

Business

Panjo, slick and new, is touted as Korea’s Silicon Valley. There, at the R&D Center of the automotive company we were visiting, we took in whiffs of the brewing future: technology that allows the car to course by itself between white lines on streets; technology that slows the car if it gets too close to the vehicle ahead; technologies for autonomous automobiles.

We were humbled again, at the manufacturing plant of the same company in Wonju, east of Seoul, in a setting ringed by tall and low mountains. It was as walking in a city in that factory — a city populated by humans and robots. The company deals in safety — hence the predominance of mistake-proofed robots. The top man took us around, a man with a billion-dollar operation under his command. He — let’s call him Mr. P — was earnest in sharing knowledge and experience with us his suppliers, and he was intense when he listened.


Afterward, Mr. P took us to a “private dinner.” He’d arranged a vegan dinner for us at what looked like a home in the suburbs. Seating was arranged Korean-style on the floor, but he had that removed. “No problem, no problem,” we said, to no avail. The cushions were taken out, and two tables and seven chairs were hauled in and some two-dozen small plates bearing vegan stuff were put on the table.

Dinner was splendid. We ate plant-based stuff, they ate the same, but they picked also pieces from a red heap of sauce-soaked pieces of tenderloin. We drank water, they drank soju off little glasses, and mokkali from white porcelain bowls. After the meal was over, when we were thinking what a fine host he’d been, Mr. P said, “It’s too early to go back to the hotel. We’ll go for coffee. To a nice place on hilltop.”

So we went to the Cafe 533 on a hill, the highest point in Wonju, which afforded a night view of the town from its levels. It was cold. We lingered on the open terrace and shivered and went in when our order was ready.

My drink was hot Omija-cha, a five-flavored reddish tea. Mr. P had us sit by the window, and we gazed out at the lights of the town.

Sipping my sweet brew, I recalled City Lights, and Chaplin’s nights with the tippler millionaire, and I worried how Mr. P would think back on this evening tomorrow morning. No worries. A week has passed, and he and I have exchanged emails exhorting mutual reassurances.


We visited a maker of automation equipment who is building us a machine. The centerpiece on their shop floor was an under-construction robotic line for producing ping-pong tables, at a table a minute. Does the world need a ping-pong table every minute? More, actually, if you add the output of worldwide competition.

Departure

The duty-free at the Incheon International Airport was large, the shops high-ceilinged and broad-fronted, like on the high street. Before the Asiana lounge, a score or so folks were hunkered on the ground. Each had a load of duty-free purchases, and was unpacking and arranging them in just-bought suitcases. They were there when we went in the lounge. And when I stepped out for a spot of shopping; and when I returned; and when we left for the gate for our flight. The packers changed, time to time. “Shift change. A factory,” my wife said. They must’ve been purchasing discounted stuff, mostly cosmetics in pale-hued containers, at any sale running in the duty-free, buying them low to sell them high elsewhere.