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"Fertile ties bind South Korea, Argentina"

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Lyal White, Business Day, 23 de junio de 2010 (texto en inglés)

WHEN Argentina and South Korea met in their World Cup clash last week, few may have been aware of an interesting link that translated into healthy rivalry between these otherwise distant nations. A thriving South Korean diaspora in Argentina has created a unique cultural dynamic and unexpected connection between these two countries.

Economically, the two have been on divergent trajectories since the 1960s, when South Korea undertook a process of modernisation and market integration on the back of highly successful agrarian reforms. Argentina, meanwhile, once ranked among the top 10 global economies, had begun its slow downward spiral. At the time, Argentina’s per capita income and export levels were more than double South Korea’s. Today, South Korea’s per capita income is double Argentina’s.

Koreans first arrived in Argentina in the early 1960s through an intergovernmental agreement that sought agricultural expertise and investment from Korean migrants. The idea was to settle them in the rural outposts of Argentina to develop agricultural production in the vastly unpopulated hinterland. But a lack of infrastructure and an unquenchable desire to improve the economic wellbeing of migrating families lured Koreans to urban centres such as Buenos Aires.

With an innate culture of hard work and economic progress, Koreans fared better than other migrants. They became staunch competitors in the labour-intensive textile industry, traditionally dominated by Jewish and Armenian families, who could not keep up with the Korean work ethic of 12-to-14-hour work days and their impressive network of export clients.

Korean migrants were most visible in small, family-run grocery stores scattered around the working-class suburbs of Buenos Aires.

Peaking in the mid-1990s, the Korean diaspora in Argentina totalled 50000. These numbers dwindled to about 15000 in 2003 following economic constraints around the Argentinian crisis and open discrimination toward Koreans viewed as exploiters and opportunists. Today, Koreans number around 23000.

Meanwhile, second- and third-generation Argentinian-Koreans have moved into other professions, where their multilingual attributes and business acumen have driven them beyond other Latin American markets, to the US and back to Asia. This is an important cultural link for two countries with a small but complementary trade balance with enormous potential. Argentina imports consumer electronics from South Korean producers and in turn exports food produce such as soy beans and beef. Korean demand for natural resources is likely to fuel growth in bilateral trade.

But the real potential lies in commercial services to improve market access between Latin America and Asia in general — and Argentina and China in particular.

Lessons in economic progress and co-operation between these two countries are numerous. Sharing common democratic values in areas of global governance and reform, both are members of the coveted Group of 20 that is driving the new global order.

Korea is regularly ranked as one of the most innovative and integrated economies, and Korean companies provide instructive lessons for Argentinian counterparts seeking to diversify and internationalise with a keen eye on the Asian market. Argentina, meanwhile, provides a growing source of natural and human resources in one of Latin America’s most educated and sophisticated economies.

Harnessing the Argentinian-Korean cultural and economic connections could translate into real commercial benefits and valuable lessons in economic development.

The catalyst required to trigger this dormant potential could lie, like many things, in soccer. The Korean diaspora may have been wishing for the impossible in a South Korea victory over Argentina’s famous “Albiceleste” . But with football’s rising popularity in Korea, Argentina has a real chance to provide not only lessons in the beautiful game, but to capitalise through co-operation in yet another powerful cultural connection.

Dr White is a senior lecturer at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. The University of Pretoria's Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) is an internationally accredited business school, based in Johannesburg, South Africa's economic hub. For the seventh consecutive year, GIBS has been ranked as one of the top 50 business schools worldwide by the Financial Times's executive education survey, the only African business school to make it into this year's top 50.

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