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.