• May 2015
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'Churm in Asia'  

Two countries, seven nights ...
Two countries, seven nights, eight days, 178 hours and more than 15,000 miles: The city of Irvine Friendship and Trade Mission to Japan and Korea is over. Jet lagged? A bit. Energized? Without a doubt. Ready to visit North Asia again? Name the date and time, I’ll be packed. On a dawn-to-dusk tour of government projects, world-class businesses and meetings with top political leaders, my view of modern Asia evolved dramatically in the past week. I’d been to China, the 800-pound giant on the Asian economic block. But never to Japan or Korea.

Traveling with 13 other Irvine officials and business leaders, this trip completed my trifecta of North Asia. I arrived home with a keener sense of the economic might that has been building this decade on the other side of the Pacific Rim. Impressive, industrious and hungry, the Japanese and particularly the Koreans have the capital and work ethic to be agents of economic change. They already dominate the global auto, electronics and shipbuilding markets, and they want a much bigger share of the bio-medical, technology and education sectors. Distracted by our own economic morass at home, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening beyond our troubled borders. But eight days in North Asia was a serious eye-opener about the powerful economic engines that are accelerating as the worldwide recession eases.

My understanding – and appreciation – for both Japan and Korea has grown exponentially. The impressions of Tsukuba, Japan, (Irvine’s sister city since 1989), the Korean capital of Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi-do Province are too many to satisfactorily recount. But I will try by offering up my top 10 moments and memories.

1. Tsukuba: An hour north of downtown Tokyo, this scientific and research center is almost a Xerox copy of Irvine. With a population of 210,000 (Irvine has 220,000 residents), Tsukuba is barely two decades old but already is home to scores of government and private R&D agencies and firms, including the Japanese space program, JAXA. Increasingly populated by young professionals and their families, Tsukuba is a model Japanese suburb – safe, growing and master planned with one of the country’s best universities. No wonder the Irvine Co.’s Dan Young and Mike LeBlanc, both on the trip, took such a fancy to Tsukuba.

2. Two mayors, one world: In an extraordinary show of friendship, Irvine’s Sukhee Kang and Tsukuba’s Ken-ichi Ichihara bonded to the point that the two mayors ended our three-day stay in Japan with arms locked, calling each other “brother.”

3. Chi Hun Choi: A division president at Samsung Electronics in Suwon-City near Seoul, Choi may have been the most compelling leader I met on a trip filled with encounters of powerful people. Born in Mexico City and educated in the U.S., Choi worked for Jack Welch at General Electric, and he displayed a remarkable grasp of world affairs and economics with a sense of humor and candor rarely seen in a first meeting with strangers. It was a two-hour lunch I won’t soon forget.

4. Crash-test dummies: Costing $200,000 to $1 million each, 100 human-like dummies were lined up in a warehouse at the ultra-secret Hyundai-Kia Motors R&D Center outside Seoul. From infant to adult size, the dummies are wired with highly calibrated sensors and electronics to measure damage and impact during nearly 1,000 crash tests the company performs on its new models every year. It was a somewhat bizarre scene seeing all the dummies seated with arms raised waiting for their next high-speed demolition assignment. 

5. Beth Krom: The Irvine councilwoman delivered the best one-liner of the trip. When the $1 million male crash-test dummy was pointed out with his wires partially exposed, she deadpanned: “I’ve never met a man worth $1 million … inside or out.”

6. Korean Street Food: Legendary. Octopus jerky, peanut molasses clusters and silkworm larvae (oh yes, I did ...).

7. The Big Echo: In the largest karaoke club in Tsukuba, two cultures found a common ground – music. In a scene from a movie, it was the U.S. versus Japan in a global karaoke challenge for the ages. With the beverages flowing and ties loosened, the highlight of the evening was Irvine Co.’s Young and former Lennar CEO Emile Haddad (now CEO of Five Point Communities, the developer of the Great Park) singing a duet of John Denver’s “Country Road.”

8. The Rolling Incubator: When you put 14 Type-A professionals and executives together for eight straight days, you are bound to get a chemical reaction. In this case, our red-and-white Daewoo bus that shuttled between stops became an incubator on wheels for breakout sessions – even debates – about business models, partnerships and foreign policy. Unfortunately, what was discussed on the bus stays on the bus.

9. Irvine: When the city was incorporated in 1971, the founding fathers in their wildest dream never could have predicted Irvine would be better-known 7,000 miles away in North Asia than in some parts of the U.S. But it’s true.

10. Sukhee Kang: Word was Kang was a “rock star” in his homeland because of his historic election a year ago as the first Korean-American to become mayor of a major U.S. city. If there were doubts, they were dispelled the first night in Korea when we had a private audience with the charismatic mayor of Seoul. He was one of several top political figures, all considered challengers for Korea’s presidency that our delegation met with. Why us? It was Kang and what he has accomplished in America that opened doors. It’s good for Orange County and great for Irvine. Now, can the city leverage and build on this international profile and recognition going forward? Time will tell.

The Irvine trade delegation gathers at the world headquarters
of Samsung Electronics in Seoul.

Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang and Councilwoman
Beth Krom pause in historic Suwon near Seoul, Korea.

Pictured above is a formal dinner between
Irvine delegation and governor of Seoul's
most important province.

Dried octopus is sold on the streets of Seoul.