Seoul Story


A gushing rapid on the trail of the Bukhansan trek
During animmersion experience at KAIST in South Korea, IIMB’s one-year Global MBA students get insights into the country via field visits, projects and some adventures. Karthik Ramanathan shares his experience.

21 September, 2017, Bengaluru:It was eight o’clock in the evening on 13thAugust 2017: we, the students of the full-time Executive Post Graduate Programme in Management (EPGP) at IIM Bangalore, were lugging our bags, getting ready to load them in the buses waiting to ferry us to the airport. Yes, the day that we had all been yearning for has arrived! Term 2 – the most dreaded of all terms – done and dusted, we were on our way to South Korea, Seoul in particular. The atmosphere in the bus during the nearly 90-minute ride to the airport was heady. Portable speakers were out; there was song and dance and unrestrained merriment. The mood had been set for the forthcoming fortnight

No sooner did the flight take off, 30 minutes past midnight, that all the pent up exhaustion and fatigue of the last three days 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 in Hong Kong that allowed us to visit the city for a few hours. On landing we immediately made for the immigration counter to secure a clearance to enter the city, after which we took the airport express train to the city. The weather, though not hot, was quite humid. Our destination was the promenade from where the famous skyline of Hong Kong, across the sea, can be seen in all its glory. The route took us through some of the most upmarket localities of the city. The skyline itself was quite impressive, and it would have been a sight to behold at night. After spending about an hour on the promenade we headed back to the airport.
The flight from Hong Kong to Seoul was all about friendly chatter, snacks and movies. We landed in Seoul quite late but were warmly welcomed by students from KAIST, our host school. What struck us about the South Koreans immediately was their humility and hospitable nature — two traits that we came face to face with, over and over again, during our two weeks 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 and snore what-was-left-of-the-night away. A 9:00 a.m. departure sound positively punishing. But after four months of hard work back home at IIMB, we were well trained for tough times!
Prior to the bus ride we were served a wonderful breakfast that had plenty on offer for vegetarians, including fresh fruits, steamed vegetables, potato fries, assorted breads, hot chocolate, yogurt, and coffee. We spent the thirty-minute bus ride to KAIST taking in the sights of the city, which looked like an infrastructure marvel, which we later learnt was called the ‘miracle on the Han river’, Han being the river that flows through Seoul and divides the city into northern and southern halves.
Lectures, fields visits and more
We were welcomed to KAIST by Prof. Betty Chung with a little gift for each one of us. The day consisted of three lectures, the first one from Prof. Chung herself. She talked about the important characteristics of Korean culture and also about South Korea’s meteoric rise from being one of the poorest nations in the world in the ’50s to one of the most developed societies in the world today. I was particularly amazed by the choice of words such as jung and noonchi to communicate important cultural aspects that are integral to South Korea.
The second lecture was by Dilip Sundaram, who was the CFO and Chief Transformation Officer of Mahindra’s acquisition of SsangYong. His session was peppered with incisive questions aimed at us that put us in his shoes 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 on execution 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 honoured and extremely lucky to be able to listen to, in person, to a person 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.
The following days had lectures by James Rooney, who provided us an outsider’s perspective of not only South Korea but the other two Northeast Asian economies of China and Japan.
The lecture by Prof. Leighanne Yuh, a historian, provided us the backstory for South Korea’s stratospheric economic rise. Her detailing of President Park Chung-hee’s era during the ’60s and the ’70s was particularly insightful.
We went on field visits to the Samsung Innovation Museum, and to the Korea Exchange (KRX) in Busan. We also had two visits that helped us explore the culture of South Korea, and these were Nanta and Kicks. The former is a cooking-based mime show that amazed and stupefied 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 KRX in Busan, we also found time to visit the beach.
Flights of fantasy
The best was saved for the last. Prior to our departure to South Korea, my class had been divided into groups of seven each, and 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 two groups. On the penultimate day of our stay in South Korea, quite unexpectedly and surprisingly, we were granted permission to visit the headquarters of Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) in 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, which was a four-hour bus ride from Seoul. We were staring at the prospect of travelling eight hours for a two-hour meeting with a 9:00 a.m. departure 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 & 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 KAI’s fighter and trainer jets, and helicopters, and we were also given a glimpse of the cockpit of T-50, KAI’s advanced jet trainer.
Memories are made of this
Besides the 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 has now been restored with a walkway along the stream, making it an excellent public space. We also frequented various shopping hubs of the city such as the popular Gangnam Street, the sprawling Lotte Department Store, the crowded bylanes 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 have 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, royal residences, etc.
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. In the former instance, we still managed a decent hike that afforded us breathtaking views of gushing streams and tranquil Buddhist temples, and 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!
Photo Gallery : Post Graduate Programme in Management (EPGP)
A seat of serenity nestled in wooded hills, beneath a grey sky.
Sprightly green grass, reflective glassy river, and wise brooding hills – presided over by a portentous sky.
Enjoying the kick of Kicks.
In front of Gangnam Family Hotel.
At Samsung Innovation Museum.
A view of Busan from KRX
About the author:
Karthik Ramanathan is an IT Professional with considerable experience in the BFSI domain. He is an enthusiastic writer at heart with a passion to capture memories in words. He is currently pursuing his one-year full-time MBA at IIM Bangalore.
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