Seoul Man – New Book Describes Life in Corporate, Confucian Korea

It was back in the early 1980s, when I was a journalist in Tokyo, that I received a phone call from a British friend with some good news. He had just been hired by Mitsubishi Motors to an important position, handling the company’s public relations with the foreign media. But he was not a journalist himself – he mainly got the job because of his excellent Japanese-language skills – and he wanted to learn more about the world of journalism. He invited me to lunch.

seoul-manWe met at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, and I began to detail how he could best meet the needs of foreign journalists – a regular English-language newsletter, press releases, meetings with senior executives, test drives, the chance to talk with engineers and designers, and so on.

He listened with a bemused look on his face, but then interrupted me. “No, no, you don’t understand. My job is to keep our company out of the foreign media.”

Back then Mitsubishi Motors made pretty undistinguished cars, unlike rivals such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda, and so foreign journalists writing about the company invariably wanted to ask questions about something else.

And the “something else” was the company’s president at the time, Teruo Tojo, the son of the Japanese World War II leader Hideki Tojo, who had been executed after the war by the Allies. Any journalist could see the chance of a great story if he or she could learn more about this quiet, secretive man.

It did not help that Mitsubishi Motors had been spun off just a decade-or-so earlier from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which was responsible for much of Japan’s output of aircraft, naval ships and heavy machinery during the war. Foreign journalists in Tokyo in those days knew that their editors relished “Is Japan secretly rearming?” stories, and so hapless executives at corporations like Mitsubishi Motors could easily find themselves subjected to intense questioning on military matters.

It was little wonder the company did not want to be in the news.

I was reminded of this incident while reading a new book, “Seoul Man,” by former Washington Post journalist Frank Ahrens. It is the story of how he moved to South Korea, with his diplomat wife, to handle media relations for the Korean car-making giant Hyundai Motors.

It is a fun book, full of amusing incidents drawn from his years with the company. He explains how he dealt with the heavy drinking culture of corporate Korea (my Korean wife has three brothers, and I know this culture well) and with the Confucian ethos of his office. In a touching tale, he relates how he acquired a native Korean jindo dog. And then there is the traumatic occasion when he opened the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times and found full-page ads for Hyundai cars with the heading “Years doesn’t diminish the value of a Hyundai.”

I was particularly drawn to the book when I found it in my local public library because I had just returned from a holiday in Seoul with my wife, and also because just a couple of months earlier we had replaced our Ford with a new Hyundai.

But as the Korean economy grows and Korean culture becomes more prominent, we need to learn more about this fascinating country. So, with its unique take on life inside corporate Seoul, this is a book for all. We need more books like it.

A bonus for me was some poignant Christian witness. The author does not shy away from discussing how his faith and Christian convictions helped sustain him and his wife at times of stress.

Highly recommended.

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