• 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.

There is nothing like a crash to get the juices flowing

There is thing nothing like a good crash to get the juices flowing first thing in the morning. Standing on a second-floor observation deck at the sprawling Hyundai Kia Motors just outside Seoul, the coat-and-tie trade delegation strained against the glass for the best view as the facility supervisor counted down in Korean – three, two and one. A moment later a silver Hyundai Sonata speeding at 40 mph appeared and then slammed into a steel block in the center of the warehouse. BAM! Ten cameras positioned around the impact zone each captured the collision at 1,000 frames per second as the 13 members of the visiting Irvine trade delegation gawked at the Sonata’s crumpled front end while a half-dozen technicians inspected the damage down below.

The crash test facility is part of the 840-acre Hyundai-Kia RD Center in Namyang, a sparkling testament to Korea’s rise as one of the world powers when it comes to automobile   manufacturing and, more recently, design. Home to 10,000 engineers, this center is at the core of an ambitious strategy to link similar design incubators for Hyundai-Kia in India, Germany, Michigan and Irvine, the North American headquarters for the automaker. Thanks to John Yoon, vice president of human resources and general counsel for Kia Motors America, a private two-hour tour revealed a company racing 24/7 to one-day challenge Toyota’s supremacy as the world’s biggest auto producer. Hyundai-Kia moved into No. 4 behind Toyota, General Motors and Volkswagen, and the mission is to jump into the top three with sales worldwide of 6.3 million cars and trucks by the end of 2012. My two cents: Don’t bet against them.

On a gray, cold Friday morning, it was easy to feel the competitive heat that is driving this auto giant. Toyota, GM and others around the world must be looking often in their rear-view mirror.

“We simply want to be the best,” said Ryan (he didn’t make me try to pronounce his real name), a young Korean test-drive specialist who was riding shotgun as I punched the accelerator in a candy-apple red Kia Soul at the Namyang test track. Cars are tested on 71 different road surfaces at the proving grounds. “Hyundai has always been good, but now it is the quality we want to change,” he added. “We are getting there quickly.” Minutes later, I was in the front passenger seat of a sleek Hyundai four-door sedan speeding at 130 mph through the 40-degree banked turn. When the driver casually removed his hands from the steering wheel, the chatter from the back seat between The Irvine Co.’s Dan Young and Starpointe Ventures’ Patrick Strader stopped cold. “See how well this handles?” the driver asked, grinning. My response choking the armrests with both hands and staring straight head: “How long have you been doing this?” He said 25 years; it was his anniversary with Kia Motors, where he started in 1984 as a rookie test driver. Good to know as I looked out the passenger window at the asphalt just a few feet from the glass.

Cameras and even cell phones were not permitted at the Hyundai-Kia facility. The multi-trillion dollar auto business is serious stuff, and secrecy is an ever-present part of the landscape. Even the location of the Namyang facility south of Seoul is set off the main highway in a rural area. “This company wants to be taken seriously, and they have committed the resources to make that happen,” said Yoon, who was born in Korea, is Harvard educated and now calls Orange County home. “It’s a remarkable business story.”

Chuck Hong is the face of the ..
Chuck Hong is the face of the modern Pacific Rim entrepreneur. Born and raised in Seoul, he has three college degrees, lives in Newport Coast and piles up frequent flier miles faster than a Korean Air pilot. He is founder and CEO of Irvine-based Netlist, a technology firm not yet 10 years old. He runs sales and marketing from his Irvine Spectrum headquarters, and he has a manufacturing plant near Shanghai in China. In an ever-shrinking business world, he connects the dots – Irvine, China and his native Seoul – with a stealth honed by years of working on both sides of the Pacific. What makes Hong compelling is who he is, one of many who are leveraging multiple cultures to carve out an accelerating business career that transcends time zones.

The son of a Korean journalist, Hong is smart and committed. Failure is not an option for this high-tech executive and his generation of Koreans. For much of the 20th century, Korea struggled under oppressive Japanese rule, then civil war in the early 1950s and eventually military rule for almost 40 years. Democracy and free elections in this nation of 48 million didn’t arrive until the late 1990s. Now stable and hungry to compete, Korea has moved at hyper-speed to become the 13th-largest economy in the world and America’s seventh-largest trading partner. Half of the world’s oil tankers and 60 percent of all cruise ships are built here. Four out of every 10 computers are manufactured in Korea, which ranks ninth in global innovation. Seoul-based Samsung has surpassed Sony as the world’s biggest seller of flat-screen TVs.

Korea isn’t just an economic wannabe. The nation has arrived at the big-boy table. China is bigger and Japan more prominent. But Korea is the hot new kid on the economic block here in north Asia. And, if you don’t pay attention, Korea just might own that block and everything on it. What’s most impressive is how quickly Korea has ascended into world-class economic status.

“Give Koreans a task or a target, and nobody is better right now at hitting that mark,” said Hong on a 90-minute bus ride from Seoul to Incheon. “What sets Korea apart is the speed at which they get things done. Japan, for example, may be more creative and more methodical when it comes to business. But nobody can touch the Koreans for the speed output.”

It explains, in part, Korea’s transformation almost overnight as an industrialized nation. Being competitive comes naturally to Koreans, said Hong, who has degrees from three American universities, including MBAs from George Washington and Pepperdine. Hong is part of the new Korea. He worked 15 years in Korea and San Jose for LG Electronics, and then was recruited to run the semiconductor business for Viking Components in Orange County before starting Netlist in 2000. A $150 million company at its peak, he took Netlist public in 2006.

“The difference between Koreans and others is the willingness to work 24/7,” Hong said, staring out at the endless clusters of high-rise apartments that crowd the landscape between Seoul and the mega-port city of Incheon. A light snow was falling, adding a winter look to the bumper-to-bumper traffic. “Koreans work hard to survive. They are willing to do almost anything to get ahead. They even sell their farms or businesses to put their kids through school. When you live in a country of abundant natural resources, you tend not to work as hard. Koreans have had to work for everything.”

When they succeed, they like to show it. Koreans drive bigger cars than the Japanese, the dress is more fashion forward and the lifestyle faster. China and Japan are bound by tradition. Korea is about the “now,” and so is Hong.

Chuck Hong, CEO of Irvine-based Netlist,
dines with Chris Lynch, vice president of Irvine
Chamber (left) and Michelle Grettenberg and
Emma Green of Irvine city staff.

Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang, John Yoon, vice president and
general counsel of Kia Motors America (left), and Chuck Hong,
CEO of Netlist, pause in downtown Seoul.

Sukhee Kang stood at the end ...
Sukhee Kang stood at the end of the jetway beaming. He was home, and it felt good. Presidential looking in his blue suit and bold red tie, the Irvine mayor had just stepped from the jumbo jet onto Korean soil at Incheon Airport and was absorbing the moment, almost oblivious to the stream of passengers filing past into the terminal.

“It feels good,” he said to no one in particular. “It’s a beautiful day.”

Two hours earlier, Korean Air Flight #706 had left Japan under cloudy skies. But now a bright noonday sun filtered through the windows at Incheon, casting a warm yellowish glow on the mayor Wednesday. All was right in Kang’s world. This was not the first trip back to his native Korea since making history 12 months ago, becoming the first Korean-born American to win an election as mayor of a major U.S. city. But it was the first official visit with a delegation of city officials and Irvine business leaders. It is a coming out of sorts for a man who immigrated to the U.S. in 1977 and has built an expanding political base in one of the most diverse cities in California. His victory made headlines on both sides of the Pacific, and he has been leveraging that mandate ever since.

It was evident at a late-afternoon meeting with the powerful and highly popular mayor of Seoul, Se-hoon Oh, that Kang has political juice in this megalopolis of nearly 12 million residents. He orchestrated a 30-minute closed-door meeting in Oh’s private board room during which the Seoul mayor referenced Kang as the “Obama of Irvine,” an obvious nod to the arrival here overnight of the U.S. president, who is also hop-scotching Asia right now. Oh, with his boyish good looks and soft-spoken delivery, called Kang a “good friend” and expressed a desire to expand relations as he ends his first term and prepares for a re-election. Back on the bus after meeting with Oh, Kang was energized.
“He is a leader that moves people and agendas,” Kang said of Oh and their budding friendship.

Thirty minutes later across from the Han River at Korea’s National Assembly building, Kang stepped from a tour bus and was greeted with a vigorous handshake from his boyhood friend, Korean General Secretary Kye Dong Park. Walking shoulder to shoulder up the steps of the landmark government building, which houses the Korean legislature, the two seemed like they’d never been apart. Park led Kang and the Irvine delegation on a rare after-hours tour of the Assembly’s chambers, and then he hosted a private dinner there, which was further confirmation of Kang’s widening reputation on the Korean peninsula. One reason is the connection between Korea and Orange County, which has nearly 55,500 Koreans, third highest in the U.S. Kang gets it and wants to leverage the ties by bringing more Korean businesses and investors to Irvine.

With tours of Samsung’s Suwon Complex, Samil Pharmaceuticals and the Hyundai-Kia R&D Center still ahead, Kang is trying to impress on the business leaders on this trip that Irvine and, frankly, Orange County, must get aggressive about attracting new business. Kang knows his vision is ambitious, but doing nothing to create new jobs is unacceptable. That’s one big reason he has traveled halfway around the world. The other was plain as day as he stood smiling in Incheon Airport today. Like most native sons and daughters, it’s special to come home.

Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang just stepped off
Korean Air onto his native soil in Korea Wednesday at noon.

Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang and Seoul, Korea, Mayor
Se-hoon Oh pause together.

Downtown Seoul from the 23rd floor of the Lotte Hotel

OC METRO Publisher blogs at Narita International Airport
Wednesday morning waiting to board Korean Air bound for Seoul.

I’m exhausted and hungry and I haven’t...
I’m exhausted and hungry and I haven’t missed a single meal halfway through this eight-day friendship-and-trade mission to the Far East. The truth is I’m so busy trying to mind my p's and q's that I have missed entire courses. Mind you, I was raised right and it’s been a long time since my table manners were called into question. But the fear of creating an international incident here in Tsukuba has my stomach in knots. I’m approaching each meal with a detailed game plan that would make Emily Post proud. I’ve created a cheat sheet of “Do's and Don’ts” that I study right up to mealtime. It’s a wonder I’ve even been able to focus for more than five minutes on the business at hand, touring Irvine’s sister city of Tsukuba and, more importantly, developing business ties in north Asia.

From where to place the chopsticks on the table to who pours who a beverage and when, I’m a stress-mess as I try to impress our foreign hosts with the California cool. Cool? Hell, I’m a perspiring pool of nerves as I survey each dining room looking for clues and tip offs on my next move. Seasoned world travelers or diplomats know this etiquette inside and out. But so far I’ve been about as smooth at meals as a preschooler at the adult table for Thanksgiving. And what’s with no napkins? We get a washcloth to start each meal, so at least I start tidy and clean. But by the third course, using chopsticks on rice, finger-sized vegetables and Japanese delicacies, I’m done. Just hose me down.

Food is great, in fact, it's world class. Though someone forgot to tell me it was braised beef cheek (yes, you read that right) until I finished half of what I told Assistant City Manager Wally Kreutzen was a short rib. Delicious, but I’m still pondering which cheek I had. Oh well, I’m certain I’ll get better at this once we reach South Korea. However, Patrick Strader of Starpointe Ventures has promised more culinary surprises when we reach Seoul. Great, I am barely getting out of Japan with Churm Media’s reputation hanging by a thread, and now I’m going to a city known for street food of any spice. This trip is better than Nutrisystem.

Help! All I want to do is order a No. 2 at Wahoo’s and relax.

Patrick Strader of Starpointe Ventures
and Emile Haddad of Five Point Communities
at lunch in Tsukuba.

Take a look at a traditional Japanese lunch
in Tsukuba.

Here are appetizers at a French-Japanese restaurant in Japan.
All 24 guests received the exact same plate.
Fish, vegetables and a chicken ball.

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