Korea is called the “Land of the Morning Calm.” Certainly, members of the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Trade Delegation to Korea were struck by the beauty of this country, particularly its capital city of Seoul. Modern, thriving, bustling…Seoul is simply an amazing fusion of traditional Korean architecture and food, mixed with a healthy dose of “western-ness” – American food franchises, fashions and other material goods.
Korea is home to about 50 million people, concentrated in a land mass the size of Indiana. It is the third most densely populated country in the world (people per kilometer squared); and about 75% of the country’s land is mountainous. About 17% is arable – which doesn’t leave much room for farming.
The first full day of our trade mission focused on briefings from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, and several agricultural organizations based here that are funded by U.S. farmers and the USDA. We are finding that Korea is a fascinating case-study in how history and tradition are colliding with newfound interest in a growing economy by the western world.
The world’s largest “Costco,” a members-only warehouse-style store, is located in Seoul. It sells about $500 million in goods each year, in one of this country’s most affluent neighborhoods. Of that total, more than half the sales are of food. We visited this Costco, which was busy – but less so than usual thanks to a typhoon that let loose over Seoul early Monday morning.
Everywhere in this store there were products readily available in America. Except for fruit: ironically, grapes at this Costco were from the U.S. In Manhattan, Kan., the grapes come from Chile.
We went to a department store called E-Mart, which has a variety of goods, akin to a Target. It is clean, efficient and nice. The average full-time worker, right out of college, makes about $35,000 – much higher than the country’s per capita income of $22,000. While the service at this store is impeccable, its niche is in serving online customers. At the front of the store, a dozen employees sit at computer screens collecting online order information, while another team of folks gathers the goods, packs and ships the orders.
Tomorrow, we go to the country. I can’t wait.