Scoping out South Korea’s Investment Landscape

I’ve recently shared some of my views about rising tensions on the Korean peninsula as well as the political and business landscape in South Korea, which are often intertwined. While there are challenges and uncertainties in South Korea, we haven’t so far let that deter us as investors. My colleagues and I are still finding many potential investment opportunities. I recently visited South Korea and took a look at some of them.

Busan’s Building Boom

I landed in Busan, which is at the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula. With a population of 3.5 million, it’s the country’s second-largest city after Seoul. Busan’s close proximity to the Japanese southernmost island, Kyushu, enables ferries to traverse the strait separating the two countries.

I remember taking that trip many years ago and sleeping on a tatami (straw mat) for the overnight journey. The waters were rough, so I could understand how Japan was saved in 1281 from the Mongol Yuan dynasty’s invasion when a typhoon destroyed their fleet. The grateful Japanese named the storm the “divine (kami) wind (kaze)” or kamikaze. During World War II, Japan’s suicide plane pilots were called “kamikaze pilots.”

When visiting Busan, I like to stay on the popular and famous Haeundae Beach. The beach is also near many South Korean businesses, so it’s convenient. A blockbuster disaster movie called “Haeundae” was made about a tidal wave that engulfed the beach and town. Even if you don’t understand Korean, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement, tragedy, romance and heroism portrayed in the movie. It’s a real tearjerker but beautifully expresses the Korean ideals of sacrifice, nobility and bravery.

In recent years, there has been a building boom in Busan, transforming the area from a sleepy holiday destination to a year-round metropolis with modern high-rise apartment buildings and hotels looming over the seascape. Currently a new major resort project is under construction right on the beach, with the tallest skyscraper destined to reach upwards of 100 floors and 411 meters, which is quite impressive. The complex will include a hotel, shopping mall and luxury apartments. For comparison, the Empire State Building in New York in the United States is 381 meters high. The development was one of several large projects in Busan.

While development and progress can create economic benefits, not everyone is happy about it. A restaurant owner we met on the beach complained that the high-rise buildings created too much heat. Apparently, the ocean breeze doesn’t circulate well around them. And, the resort development has been part of a corruption scandal the press has dubbed “Busan-gate.”

Nonetheless, the area is attractive for tourists. Strolling on the beach esplanade, my colleagues and I enjoyed the entertainment, including a street band, a magician, fortune tellers and even a puppet master who deftly manipulated multiple string puppets impersonating famous singers. This was an exciting experience for me, since as a teenager I used to make puppets.