Why Does Korea Lack a James Cameron or Steve Jobs?

Song Eui-dal Song Eui-dal

Which foreigner had the greatest impact on Korean business this year? The two top candidates are probably James Cameron, director of the 3D sci-fi blockbuster "Avatar," and Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Cameron reshaped the paradigms of the movie industry, while Jobs did the same for the IT industry. They used their imagination to create successful products.

Avatar has netted US$3 billion in just the first three months of its release, which is equivalent to exporting more than three million Sonata sedans costing $20,000 each. Jobs, who led Apple to make around W4 trillion (US$1=W1,152) in net profit during the fourth quarter of last year by selling 8.7 million iPhones, is the world's most creative CEO. In contrast, rivals Samsung Electronics and Nokia barely make W1 trillion each quarter selling more than 50 million cell phones.
 
Cameron and Jobs, both baby boomers who dropped out of college and still enjoy wearing jeans, have a lot in common. One similarity is their knack for coming up with one innovative success after another. For Jobs, it is the iPod, which led to the iPhone and the iPad. For Cameron, the blockbuster "Terminator" was followed by the hit "Titanic" and now "Avatar." Both of them are highly charismatic characters who have been labeled tyrants and called arrogant in their respective settings. They both come from tumultuous backgrounds, with Cameron divorcing four times and Jobs born out of wedlock and put up for adoption.

Yet they both overcame major defeats. Cameron lost everything in 1989 after his deep-sea flick "The Abyss" drowned at the box office. In 1986, Jobs was ousted from Apple, which he created, only to be reinstated 11 years later. But he faced yet another crisis due to disappointing sales of Apple's PDAs, a bout with pancreatic cancer and a liver transplant.  

What would have happened if Cameron and Jobs had done what they did in Korea? First of all, it would have been nearly impossible for a man without a university degree to launch his own IT company and become its CEO, and it would have been equally unlikely for a young man to become a self-taught movie director while moonlighting as a truck driver. One or two failed trials would make it even more difficult for a person to keep pushing their ambitions. "In the U.S. and other advanced countries, CEOs convene shareholders' meetings, seek their approval and close down their businesses," said one head of a small business in Korea. "But in Korea, the CEO is required to personally guarantee the company's debts, so once it goes belly-up, there is no way out of the mess."

With risks like that, fewer and fewer people are willing to launch their own start-ups, which are fueled by the spirit of adventure and a hunger for new challenges. Koreans in their 20s and 30s, who accounted for 58 percent of people launching start-ups in 1999, now account for only 14 percent. The remaining 86 percent are mostly retirees in their 40s or 50s who open shops or restaurants just to make a living. "In Silicon Valley, less than 5 percent of start-ups survive two years," said Ahn Chul-soo, head of Korea's renowned AhnLab and a professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. "Venture companies can truly thrive only in an environment that can cushion their failures and stimulate them to try again."

Just in time, the government has come up with a plan to nurture venture companies with the aim of developing Korea's software industry into a global powerhouse. Government officials hope the measures will eventually lead to a Korean Steve Jobs emerging on the IT scene some day. The owners and top management of Korea's major business conglomerates, including Samsung and LG, have made it a point to watch "Avatar" in hopes of learning from its innovative spirit. And there are growing calls for a focus on creativity and imagination in schools and in research centers.

But Korea first needs to get rid of the monopoly wielded by major business conglomerates and to stop treating failed businesspeople like losers. That is how the entrepreneurial spirit will be kindled and enrich Korea's business environment.

By Song Eui-dal from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

englishnews@chosun.com / Feb. 17, 2010 12:32 KST