Burnt Sugar Grapefruit: Give Thanks for South Korea

A Marginal Revolution commenter wrote:

South Korea being prosperous has had no benefit to me, yet I have borne the cost.

I say: Wait ten years. No country combines innovation and quality like South Korea. Samsung illustrates quality but the innovation is less clear. Here are examples.

1. Food preparation. In Seoul, a friend took me to an American-style buffet. Nothing could be worse, I thought. But I was blown away by original treatments of familiar things. One was an octopus salad. It was truly chewy and crunchy, in contrast to most restaurant salads. Whoever designed it understood underlying principles — they weren’t just mindlessly copying. The fruit on offer included burnt sugar grapefruit — small pieces of grapefruit with a little bit of added sugar, then torched. The burnt sugar adds complexity. A simple small cheap attractive practical dish — not grilled grapefruit with too much brown sugar.

2. Cafes. Seoul is bursting with little cafes that are pleasant places to spend a few hours. They are well-decorated (many individually-decorated), serve interesting food and drink, and make Starbucks look cold, hard and stodgy. You can easily spend $6 on dinner and $6 on a drink afterwards but the $6 drink seems worth it. One Korean explained the profusion of beautiful useful cafes on competition (“Koreans are very competitive”). Another Korean said it was the TV series Sex in the City (“The characters spent a lot of time in cafes”). There are two Korean cafes near where I live in Beijing.

3. Bakery. Korean bakeries have what Americans expect in a bakery, such as bread and croissants, but also have many more products, both baked goods and other food, than American bakeries. There are many Korean bakeries in Beijing.

4. Airport. Incheon Airport was voted the best airport in the world for 7 years; in the most recent two years, it was voted second best. I’m not sure this reflects innovation that future airport architects will want to study; new airports have a huge advantage for which I cannot adjust. But Incheon has free wifi that works; Beijing International Airport has free wifi that doesn’t work.

5. Door lock. Nice houses and apartments in Seoul have a kind of digital door lock I haven’t seen anywhere else. Via Google I found this — which, lo and behold, comes from South Korea. These locks are better in several ways than other electronic door locks. For example, the keys are lit. My guess is that new houses and apartments in America don’t have these locks because Americans don’t even know they exist. Apparently a South Korean company (Milre) figured out that substantial improvement was possible. There isn’t even an English Wikipedia entry for Milre, yet it will have more effect on your life than, oh, 99.999% of the current entries.

6. Pop music. Gangnam style, obviously; K-Pop, slightly less obviously, if you don’t live in Asia. Gangnam style = K-Pop plus humor.

Keep in mind South Korea is small (population 50 million; the population of Japan is 130 million). A country that is a lot more prosperous now than 30 years ago is a good place to innovate because all the crummy old stuff is being replaced — that is clear. It is also a big plus for innovation if its citizens are well-educated. If you understand that, and how bad the United States is at innovation (housing, health care, cars, education . . . ), you will see that helping South Korea become prosperous was a great investment. Inadvertently great, but great nonetheless.

In Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, the authors (Dan Senor and Saul Singer) argued that Israel is unusually innovative because no one defers to their superiors, everyone challenges everyone else (“The Israeli said, “What does “excuse me” mean?”). In The Ethnic Theory of Air Crashes, a chapter in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell repeated the theory that Korean Air had a lot of crashes because co-pilots were too deferential. Which is only to say we have a lot to learn about innovation and South Korea.

13 Responses to “Burnt Sugar Grapefruit: Give Thanks for South Korea”

  1. kxmoore Says:

    There are several Korean bakeries here in NYC. They are in Koreatown and have French names and are often crowded. The baked items look good but everything tastes like wonderbread to me. Awful. There is also a huge Korean-owned buffet restaurant. The food is superior to American buffets except for the desserts.

  2. Andrew Says:

    Tons of Korean cafés and restaurants in Los Angeles, too. The cafés help family members immigrate to the US by creating jobs that can be given to cousins, etc.

  3. Seth Roberts Says:

    Two of the Korean bakeries near me in Beijing are Tous Les Jours and Paris Baguette.

  4. No One Says:

    I have friends who work at the Israeli branch of Samsung (which is Korean). They have interesting culture clash stories. One of the things that happens often is that Korean teams come to Israel to learn the “Israeli Creativity” style, and come back confused how that thing could ever work anywhere.

  5. dearieme Says:

    “South Korea being prosperous has had no benefit to me, yet I have borne the cost.” In what sense has the complaint borne the cost, I wonder, and in what senses has he had no advantage from it?

  6. dearieme Says:

    Ah, forgive me for answering my own question, but the commenter seems to be thinking of the cost to the American taxpayer of the Korean war and the American military deployment there ever since. Plus the cost to the casualties and, presumably, their families.

    It’s a fair point, and so I withdraw my cantankerous remark.

  7. jeff Says:

    Seth,

    On any topic that compares peoples, you risk ruining your career if you actually are interested in digging for truth (not that I claim to know the form of the latter), so you might considering staying away. When you compare Starbucks to Korean cafes, I am sure your observations are spot-on. But the superiority of the Korean cafes only partially stems from Korean character, the gulf is made wider because the United States is a socially atomized place of extreme diversity. By now, only dolts deny that diversity equals reduced social cohesion, so you are a comparing a unified people against an atomized people and declare the unified people do things better. No duh; this is a worthless comparison and you should be ashamed for advancing it, given the general tone of your blog. You can’t compare S. Korea to the USA or any European country because all but Korea are increasingly factioned. But if you compare Korean cafes to French cafes of the 1920s and adjust for technology, I am sure that you will find the former to be nicer but the latter to be more inspiring, and more importantly, a place more likely to result in copulation, which if you are like me, really can’t be beat for life enjoyment. So which would be better Korean or French cafes? For me, it would be the latter, because once a certain level of comfort is attained, then the physical pursuits are where life begins.

    Moreover, when you say the USA is bad at innovation, you are being myopic beyond all imagination. The USA along with many Western nations is in the midst of an inventive and enormous scientific experiment, replete with controls, to see if various peoples from around the world are interchangeable and what will be the consequences of pushing diverse populations nearer to Malthusian limits. Since we already know the answers to these questions on a small scale, one scientific test is, will our massive educational interventions make all peoples equal and interchangeable to arrive at the expected resultant had no population replacement, and/or augmentation programs been initiated? Change your vantage and you will see that the wealthy people of the USA gave up on advancing some forms of innovation and turned to social engineering for the hobbyist science that you advocate. You may not see social engineering as experimental, but it is, and it is of the highest and most profound importance as once it begins, it never ends.

    As regards overall Korean innovation, I am sure it is great, but it will be within the same limits as other high-IQ agrarians. The reason that Korean Air pilots suffered many crashes most likely resulted because, despite their fiery personalities, they are a people genetically disposed to obedience and compliance to a slightly higher level than a mixed pastoralist/agrarian people. To be a good pilot, you need both adherence to rules and a cowboy confidence. After the crash in San Francisco a year or so ago, an American trainer shared his experiences training East Asian pilots. He marveled at their mastery of the air operations manual, declaring it far better than his, but he said they were generally deficit when it came time to improvise. Compare this to Feynman who opined that it was important not to study too much, the works of others, as it might impede your ability to innovate.

  8. Dragan Says:

    My favorite memory of my summer in Korea (Seoul mostly) is the food.

    For the young, the party scene is fantastic, as well. Lots of places to go to, lots of young people dancing, and a very safe environment. Interesting stuff, too: breakdancing shows and video game competitions as serious as high school basketball games in the US.

    A guy I met in Seoul told me that in his hometown of Manila, everyone brings guns and knives to dance clubs. So he flies out to Seoul whenever he feels like enjoying himself at a reasonable price without fearing for his safety.

    Outside of wonderful food and nightlife, the rest of my impressions weren’t as favorable as yours, Seth. (Well, I did think that Incheon was wonderful.) I’ve met welcoming and helpful Koreans while there, but I did not feel welcome in the country overall. I do not think I’d like to visit it again. For comparison, I’d be happy to travel through Japan again, or China, at least the parts I previously visited.

    A few years ago, one of the traveling websites (maybe Lonely Planet) had a poll for “Least favorite city” and Seoul was 3rd on the list. I thought this a bit ridiculous, as I’ve been to far worse cities, but had to admit there’s logic to the madness.

  9. Brock in HK Says:

    The commenter clearly favors tyranny of all being harmed against their will vs free people fighting for liberty. He undervalues the benefits of freedom, which is why his calculus is wrong.

    Think of the cost to the world of South Korea in a Kim dynasty-led Stone Age.

  10. George Says:

    Nearly all Asian countries are infinitely superior than America at the “art of living well” – food, nightlife, cafes blow American versions out of the water.

    The funny thing is Asians are scene as “boring” in America, but in their own countries they have magnificent tradition of unbridled hedonism and excitement seeking that makes our pathetic Puritan attitude to fun seem utterly lame. Which it is. We’re pathetic when it comes to food and nightlife and fun in general. Asians drink more than us (waaay more), party harder and better, and eat waaaay better. Arguably these things are what really matter in life (In my view they are!). It’s because Asia, like Europe, has a “culture” – a set of traditions created over centuries through a process of tinkering to maximize human enjoyment. America does not have traditions (i.e a culture), we have “science” – a habit of starting from scratch and finding that we simply can’t invent a good lifestyle using “science”. We can’t even figure out how to stay thin using this start from scratch “science” – once we got rid of thinness-promoting traditions, all our science couldn’t replace it.

    Outside of things like food and nightlife, I think its fairly obvious that America is infinitely more creative and innovative. But living is simply better there, the little things in life that make it fun and exciting.

    Now compared to Europe its a bit more complicated.

  11. Adam Says:

    Having lived in China for 3+ years and having Asian friends in Korea and Japan as well, I have to say you are dead wrong about Asians knowing how to party. My friends back in the States are much better at it than anyone I ever saw in China. Japanese and Koreans drink a lot, but it is a sort of hierarchical thing forced on them by the work environment. You get drunk because the boss is getting drunk. It isn’t fun, it is a mandatory work event.

  12. George Says:

    Sure, Adam, clubs closing in LA at 2, capital of entertainment for chirssake – yeah, we Americans really know how to party. Not to mention you have to drive so you can’t really drink. It’s barely better in NYC with closing times of 4.

    China kind of sucks though, that’s true. Maybe there was a whole scene I didn’t tap into.

    But then there’s the endless prostitution, the late night clubs, the heavy drinking, the great food – give me a break. Asians do debauchery and dissipation on a scale that would make our Puritan ancestors roll over in their graves. Europe’s better at it too, much better. Berlin has parties that last till Monday. No, we’re about work in America, and buying stuff. We’re dull, but comfortable, and we own lots of stuff. Clearly we have our priorities right.

  13. Dragan Says:

    “Asians do debauchery and dissipation on a scale that would make our Puritan ancestors roll over in their graves. Europe’s better at it too, much better. Berlin has parties that last till Monday. No, we’re about work in America, and buying stuff. We’re dull, but comfortable, and we own lots of stuff. Clearly we have our priorities right.”

    I completely agree.

    “We can’t even figure out how to stay thin using this start from scratch “science” – once we got rid of thinness-promoting traditions, all our science couldn’t replace it.”

    I really liked this line. In fact I think I’ll steal it, the highest form of flattery. :)