South Korea’s mid-life crisis

Venky Vembu | Updated on January 08, 2018

The book weaves that, and more, into an American executive’s cultural experience in that country

For many of us, coping with even just one transformative life circumstance may be challenging in the extreme. But at age 46, at about the time when mid-life crisis typically strikes, Frank Ahrens, a business journalist of 18-plus years at The Washington Post, embraced a triple-whammy of tectonic changes: he got married, took up a career in public relations, and moved half a world away.

His new bride Rebekah, who had signed up for the US Foreign Service, was taking up a posting at the US embassy in Seoul, and Ahrens followed her thither, giving up his WaPo job and joining the Hyundai Motor Group as Director of Global PR. As a big, beefy American, Ahrens narrates, he stood out — quite literally — both in the Hyundai chaebol (family-run conglomerate) headquarters (where he was virtually the only waygookin [foreigner] to serve as a director), and in the ethnically homogeneous Korean society, whose population is 97 per cent Korean.

The stage is thus set for a rollicking ride that chronicles his sometimes hilarious, but otherwise poignant, cross-cultural interactions of being a stranger in a strange land.

The bigger story

And yet, amusing as the narrative is, what provides a broader context to it is the fact that Ahrens’ own experience provides a tapestry onto which he projects the larger story of Hyundai and of South Korea. As he notes, both the company and the country were themselves facing their own mid-life crises of sorts at about the same time.

For instance, Hyundai, which was established in 1967, was 43 years old in 2010, the year Ahrens joined it. And although South Korea had been founded in 1948, its real transformation from its status as a low-income society to the path of modernity began in 1961, following a military coup under strongman Park Chung-hee. In that sense, it was only 49 years old in 2010.

Additionally, Hyundai was in the process of transforming itself from a manufacturer of unremarkable cheap cars, and had ambitiously set itself the target of moving up the quality value chain into the premium range, taking on the Big Three automakers in the US, and even, somewhat audaciously, the European giants on their own turf.

Similarly, South Korea’s mid-life crisis manifested itself in the realisation that while its industrialisation in double-quick time, arguably the fastest in world history, was truly remarkable, doing more of the same was not an option: it would have to look elsewhere for the economic growth engines that would propel it into the future.

An indication of what those growth triggers might be came in 2013, when Park Geun-hye, daughter of Park Chung-hee, ran for President on the promise of building a “creative economy”, a message that contrasted sharply with her father’s “Build, build, build; produce, produce, produce...” formula. (She was later elected President, but was impeached last year following charges of influence-peddling by a close aide.)

Trial and error

Against that backdrop of country and corporate, Ahrens narrates his insider account of life in the trenches of the vertically integrated chaebol, which owns everything from steel plants to parts suppliers to factories to distribution systems. Quite early on, his unfamiliarity with the cultural nuances of Korean society and Confucian markers of hierarchy, and a semblance of what comes across as a sneering civilisational superiority, oftentimes land him in frustrating workplace situations. His strong abidance by his Christian faith and his own preferences mark him as wholly uncomfortable at the after-office drunken binges that serve as bonding ritual. And an early reluctance to learn the Korean language inhibit his ability to fit in.

After that slow start, however, the engines of Ahrens’ corporate career roar to life — as he plays a decisive role in providing discipline to Hyundai’s corporate messaging as the company seeks to rebrand itself and implant its flag of premium quality in Western societies. Serendipity also played a huge part, as happened at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 2011, at which Hyundai unveiled a new version of its best-sellling i30 model, which was giving Volkswagen Golf a run for its money.

But just when Ahrens’ career is cruising along at top speed, life throws a curve ball. Having finished a two-year stint in Seoul, his wife Rebekah is reassigned to Indonesia. By now they have a baby, and the enforced separation – with him in Seoul and her in Djakarta — take an emotional toll on their marriage, compelling them to take drastic decisions about their lives as expats abroad. The final solution that they work out may have been sub-optimal in their perspective, but it’s the best that they can do under the circumstances.

Ahrens’ narration of these personal plotlines abounds in poignancy, even if on occasion he brings the excessive passion of a Bible-thumper. But looking back on his experience, Ahrens admits to having gained a deeper and more profound appreciation of Korean culture. He speaks candidly about the personal transformation that it induced in him, particularly his realisation that, in the Confucian spirit, he is connected to other strands in the universe.

The future

Ahrens concludes that the entire experience served to help him tide over his personal mid-life crisis. At about the same time, he reckons, both Hyundai and South Korea have also overcome their own crises. In his estimation, Hyundai is making a beginning in acknowledging the wisdom of heeding non-family shareholders, and believes that when the current Vice-Chairman Chung Eui-sun takes over, more radical changes will gain traction.

Similarly, he reasons, South Korea is also in the throes of a demographic transformation, which is enforcing regenerative multiculturalism on it. Simultaneously, the first stirrings of an innovation economy that is willing to look beyond pampering its chaebols are evident, he says. Overall, the book is a breezy read, which pops the hood and offers readers insights into the cultural engines that drive both Hyundai and South Korean corporate culture.


Frank Ahrens was a reporter at the Washington Post for 18 years, before joining Hyundai Motor where he became a Vice-President.

Published on October 15, 2017

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor