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South Korea Gangnam Startups

Gangnam Becomes Hot Spot for Korean Startups

by YOUKYUNG LEE, AP Technology Writer
Follow @YKLeeAP

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The uber-trendy Seoul neighborhood made famous by the “Gangnam Style” K-pop hit is known for status-conscious people, plastic surgery clinics and Ivy League prep schools. Now it’s making a name as a bustling center for tech startups.

Many young South Koreans, some educated overseas, are going to Gangnam to start mobile or Internet businesses. Venture capitalists from Silicon Valley and Japan are opening offices in the area to find promising Korean services or apps to bet their money on. Hardly a day passes in Gangnam without a meeting or event related to startup businesses.

As one of the most wired places on earth, Seoul has been a crucible for several startup scenes. The government is even aiming to make a town south of Seoul a Korean Silicon Valley. But it is in the 40 square kilometers of land south of the Han river where the growth of Internet and mobile startups has been most evident and the related culture most vivid.

Despite its reputation as a beacon for the shallow and status-obsessed, Gangnam has a special significance in SouthKorea as the place where a globalized youth culture emerged from a generation that had opportunities to travel and study abroad. The present day Gangnam is still seen as the place that brings foreign culture and ideas to the rest of the country.

“Gangnam has the best of the New York city and Silicon Valley,” said Steven Baek, a marketing director at FuturePlay, an incubator for startups.

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Silicon Valley is “tech-centric, with a lot of nerdy and geeky people but it doesn’t have much diversity,” he said. “Gangnam’s benefit is diversity. New York has lots of fun clubs and rich consumer-based culture like Gangnam but it doesn’t have many engineers.”

Another common reason for startups going to Gangnam is that everyone else is there, which makes networking effortless.

Near Gangnam’s Teheran-ro boulevard, many Gangnam startups, venture capitalists and startup incubators have opened offices in the past year, with more arriving in coming months. All three major media companies dedicated to covering startup stories are there too.

Around 2000, South Korea’s first wave of Internet companies dotted this 4-kilometer-long street. After the dot.com bubble burst, most of the big Internet portals and online game firms that survived moved to the south of Seoul, but left a legacy. Engineers and developers live near or in Gangnam and older entrepreneurs from the dot.com era became angel investors and startup mentors such as FuturePlay’s CEO Ryu Jung-hee.

Recent openings of two spaces for startups accelerated the startup boom and revived the Internet scene on Teheran-ro.

D.Camp opened in 2013 and Maru180 earlier this year a few blocks from Teheran-ro to rent cheap spaces to startup companies and investors. These Silicon Valley-style communal work spaces regularly host meet-ups. Maru even has showers and bunk beds. The spaces are designed to enable serendipitous, accidental meetings in communal areas.

Next year, Google is opening its first campus in Asia in Gangnam, giving mentorship and offering spaces for entrepreneurs to hang out. South Korean Internet giant Naver is also opening a startup accelerator center in Gangnam early 2015.

For 35-year-old Johnny Oh, who grew up in a fishing town, Gangnam was a foreign world that filled him with envy and insecurity.

Encouraged by rich cousins from Gangnam, he moved to the area a decade ago and ran businesses dealing with Gangnam’s well-heeled residents, hung out in Gangnam clubs and made Gangnam friends.

When he quit a big telecom firm this summer to start a Cloud-based video editing app to challenge YouTube and Vine, setting up an office in Gangnam was a no brainer.

“They are consumers with far-reaching influence,” he said.

Many mobile apps and services that are developed in Gangnam are not just looking within South Korea.

flitto(Photo courtesy of Flitto)

Simon Lee, a 32-year-old entrepreneur, said his company’s namesake translation app Flitto, which uses volunteers to do translations within minutes, is taking on Google Translate. His two-year-old startup is planning expansion in China next year.

He said being located in Gangnam helps hiring for little-known startups. Public transportation is among the most convenient in Seoul and there are many hangout places like restaurants and clubs for after work hours.

Gangnam’s startup boom reflects a shifting perception on risk taking in South Korea, where the economy is dominated by big family-owned business groups.

Even just a few years ago, the word “startup” was unknown outside the tech circles. That has changed as a growing number of South Korean startup entrepreneurs generate success stories of going public, selling their companies or winning big investments. Last month, a Goldman Sachs-led consortium announced a $36 million investment in Woowa Brothers Corp., operator of a food-delivery app located in broader Gangnam.

South Korea’s government is putting more taxpayer money behind young and risky entrepreneurs, not limited to Gangnam startups. The government plans to use a $181 million budget next year to make angel investments in early stage startups.

Still missing in South Korea’s startup boom are big companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo that snap up local startups.

Samsung, LG, SK and other South Korean conglomerates tend to overlook local startups and believe paying big money to buy a startup is an admission of failure, said Flitto’s Lee.

“Big companies do almost no M&As. They don’t want to admit they are inferior to startups,” he said.


Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Seoul’s Female Cabbies Get Protective Screens

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

The Seoul Metropolitan Government plans to install protective screens in 35 taxis driven by female drivers to prevent assaults from passengers, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“We’re doing it on a test basis for now, but if the measure is favorably accepted by the female taxi drivers and passengers, we’ll make it mandatory for all taxis in the city,” said Lee Seung-wook, a city government official.

The protective screens for the taxis are made of clear, polycarbonate that can withstand hammer blows. Each screen costs between 250,000-290,000 won (USD $222-$261), and the government will cover half the cost.

Back in September, about a third of the 462 female cabbies said in a survey that a partition was necessary for protection. Some drivers expressed their fear of working late at night when many passengers are drunk and belligerent. Last month, a Jeonju taxi driver was hit in the face with a soju bottle when he tried to give change to the drunk customer, according to the Korea Bizwire.

Under South Korea’s transportation laws, threatening or assaulting a professional driver could result in a five-year prison sentence or a fine of 20 million won (USD $18,000). However, most offenders are only fined about one million won.

Seoul now has one of the highest crime rates in South Korea, according to WSJ. About 38,408 violent crimes occurred in the trendy Gangnam district last year, making it the country’s third-most dangerous region.

The city government decided to test the protective screens on female cabbies first because they are particularly vulnerable to in-vehicle assaults.


2NE1 Performs on ‘America’s Next Top Model’


Back in March, the streets of Seoul were filled with excitement as Tyra Banks landed in South Korea to film a segment of Americas’s Next Top Model. We were even more excited when we discovered that ANTM chose popular K-pop group 2NE1 to make an appearance during the highly-anticipated fashion show for designer Lie Sang Bong.

A source revealed, “2NE1 was asked to be on the show because they are a representative K-Pop group and they are also well-known to be fashionistas.”

After 9 long months, the waiting is finally over. Americas’s Next Top Model aired its final episodes of Cycle 21 this past Friday. The segment included a photo shoot for GUESS at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, as well as Korean barbecue and even more Korean barbecue.

Most exciting of all, 2NE1 went to wish the the remaining contestants good luck before heading out to the runway to perform their popular song, “Crush.”

Check out the performance below as well as the behind-the-scenes footage of the girls interacting with the ANTM contestants.

Originally published on Audrey Magazine


Korean Air VP Resigns After ‘Nutty’ Episode

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

Heather Cho resigned as the head of in-flight services for Korean Air amid a surge of public criticism that she delayed a flight over how she was served macadamia nuts, reports the New York Times.

Cho, who is the vice president of Korean Air and the eldest daughter of the airline’s chairman, went “nuts” on Friday when a flight attendant served her nuts without asking beforehand, and in a bag instead of on a plate. The irate executive then summoned the chief flight attendant and interrogated him on in-flight service procedures. When he fumbled, Cho ordered the plane to return to the gate in order to boot him off it. The flight arrived in Incheon, South Korea 11 minutes behind schedule.

The episode triggered a barrage of negative comments from South Korean social media users, many of them demanding a boycott of Korean Air. Some criticized the excessive lifestyle of the chaebols, family-controlled conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s economy, while others compared the Cho family to North Korea’s ruling family.

Cho resigned Tuesday from the airline’s catering and in-flight sales business, and its cabin service and hotel business divisions, according to Korean Air. However, she will be keeping her title as vice president.

“I am sorry for causing trouble to the passengers and the people,” Cho said in a statement. “I seek forgiveness from those who were hurt by what I did.”

Korean Air also issued a formal apology to the flight’s passengers and said there had been no safety hazards involved as the jet was only about 35 feet away from the gate at New York’s JFK International Airport. The company added that it was “natural” for Cho to discipline the flight attendant for not following in-flight service protocol and that the decision to return to the gate was made in consultation with the pilot.

This excuse did not fly with the outraged public.

“No pilot is going to oppose an order from the daughter of the company owner,” said Lee Gae-ho, a lawmaker of the main opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

According to Yonhap, South Korea’s transport ministry said it will investigate whether Cho’s actions had violated the aviation safety law, which bars passengers from causing disturbances, including using violent language or yelling. Korean news outlets reported that Cho had screamed at the flight attendant.

If the ministry finds evidence that proves that she had endangered safety by using threats or violence, she could face up to 5 million won in fine, according to the Korea Times.

Photo courtesy of the Korea Herald


South Korean Contraception Poster Sparks Public Outcry

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

The South Korean government was hit with public backlash for a poster that promotes the use of contraception, according to the Korea Times.

The advertisement was issued by the Ministry of Health and Welfare last Friday and was intended to encourage women to use birth control in order to prevent abortions. The poster depicts a young couple from behind, with a man carrying his girlfriend’s pink purse and several shopping bags.

The slogan accompanying the photo reads: “Although you leave everything to men, don’t leave the responsibility for contraception to them.”

However, the paragraph under the slogan states that “contraception is a responsibility for both men and women,” contradicting its previous message.

After the ministry shared the poster on their social media sites, there was outrage among netizens in South Korea. Women criticized the poster for making them look “helpless.”

One female blogger wrote, “This could turn into hatred for women. Why do we have to be seen so selfish and dependent?”

Men were also offended by the poster, claiming that it portrayed their gender as “slaves” and “unreliable in terms of contraception.”

Following the backlash, the ministry took down the poster from its social media platforms. A ministry official said, “The public responses have gone against our original intention to prevent abortion by encouraging adults to actively use contraception.”

This is not the first time the South Korean government has been criticized for its sexist online materials. In late November, the Labor Ministry was criticized after it posted job interview guidelines for women, with one tip suggesting that female job applicants should tell interviewers that they don’t mind “casual jokes about sex.”

Needless to say, that post was deleted as well.

Photo courtesy of South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare


Korean LGBT Activists Protest at Seoul City Hall

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has delayed the enactment of Seoul’s Charter of Human Rights due to an LGBT-inclusive provision, spurring a group of LGBT activists to stage sit-ins at City Hall, reports Andy Marra of the Huffington Post.

The Charter was drafted and passed by a committee of 134 citizens and 30 human rights experts on Nov. 28, 2014. It was originally scheduled to celebrate the upcoming Human Rights Day. However, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced on Nov. 30 that it would indefinitely delay the promulgation of the Charter, which bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Unfortunately, working on this charter has been creating more social conflicts,” Seoul’s municipal government said in a statement. “We would like to take more time to listen to a variety of opinions from our citizens on this matter.”

Formerly a human rights lawyer, Mayor Park has dedicated over 30 years to promote social justice and progressive grassroots activism. He was also the principal founder of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a nonprofit watchdog organization that fights political corruption, and helmed the Beautiful Foundation, a philanthropic group that tackles income inequality issues.

In October, Park told San Francisco’s edition of The Examiner that he supports same-sex marriage and expressed his desire to see South Korea become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage. Yet, the Seoul mayor seemed to have caved in to the pressure from Korean churches. He even met with protestant pastors the day after the city government announced the delay of the charter’s proclamation and told them, “As the Mayor of Seoul, I do not support homosexuality.”

Rainbow Action, a coalition of 20 LGBT organizations in South Korea and the group protesting at City Hall, have criticized Park’s lack of commitment to ensure equality for those in the LGBT community. The group wrote in its official statement:

“The Mayor’s denying the Charter … is an act of discrimination by the State that does not comport with the Constitution and the National Human Rights Commission Act, as well as the international human rights law. The Charter must be proclaimed, as is originally scheduled on December 10, 2014, Human Rights Day, in Seoul.

We, LGBT activists and supporters, now occupied the City Hall to protest against the discrimination. Mr. Park has never responded yet to our repeated requests to have a meeting. We demand a meeting with the Mayor, Mr. Park Won-Soon. We demand him to proclaim the Charter.”

To learn more about the protest, read Andy Marra’s Huffington Post piece “Don’t Let Seoul’s Mayor Buckle to Homophobia and Transphobia” here


Korean Air VP Delays Flight Over Macadamia Nuts

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

The vice president of Korean Air Lines Co. is under investigation after she reportedly forced a plane to return to the gate over “nut rage,” according to Bloomberg.

Heather Cho, 40, who is also the eldest daughter of the airline’s chairman, was traveling first class from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Incheon on Dec. 5 when a flight attendant served her macadamia nuts without asking her beforehand. To make this snack-serving crime worse, the attendant had served the nuts in a paper bag and not on a dish, as required by the service manual.

Infuriated, Cho then summoned the cabin crew chief and questioned him over in-flight service procedures. When the crew chief failed to answer promptly, Cho ordered him to disembark the plane while it was readying for takeoff.

Korean Air confirmed that the plane arrived 11 minutes late and formally apologized to the flight’s passengers in an official statement yesterday. The airline also noted that the decision to expel the crew chief was made in consultation with the pilot and that the aircraft was less than 10 meters away from the passenger gate at JFK when it decided to return.

South Korea’s transport ministry said it will investigate whether or not Cho’s actions violated any aviation laws or safety regulations and will take take appropriate disciplinary action, according to Yonhap.

“Even if she is the vice president of the airline, she was one of passengers and should have been treated as one,” an official at the transport ministry told reporters. He added that Cho could have taught the flight attendant the in-flight service lesson after returning to South Korea.

According to Bloomberg, Cho is a graduate of Cornell University and joined her father’s company in 1999. She is responsible for Korean Air’s catering, cabin service, in-flight sales business and hotel divisions. She is also managing the reconstruction of the Wilshire Grand Hotel in Los Angeles.

Photo courtesy of Korean Air via the Korea Times


YG to Produce Films and Dramas with Yuehua Entertainment

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

After launching their cosmetics line Moonshot and fashion brand NONAGON, YG Entertainment is now setting its eyes on the film and television industry.

According to Korean news outlet Hankyung, the K-pop giant is currently in talks with Yuehua Entertainment, a Beijing-based talent agency, about co-producing films and dramas. If both agencies agree to move forward with the collaboration, then joint productions are expected to begin in Korea and China simultaneously as early as next year.

YG and Yuehua already have an established partnership as they have previously collaborated in producing the rookie Chinese-Korean boy band UNIQ, which debuted in October with their song “Falling in Love.”

Both companies have been aggressively investing in expanding their businesses overseas. Yuehua opened a subsidiary branch in South Korea after signing a free trade agreement last month and sealed a partnership with Pledis Entertainment, which manages K-pop artists, including Son Dam Bi, After School and NU’EST.

Earlier this week, YG held a press conference to announce the partnership with Chinese instant messaging platform, Tencent QQ, which now has rights to exclusively stream YG artists’ songs in China. According to YG Entertainment representative Kim Sang Ho, the company is also reportedly receiving several investment proposals from Chinese business groups.

With CL preparing for her American solo debut, it looks like YG Entertainment is aiming to expand beyond Asia.

Photo courtesy of Hankyung