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Memebox’s Doin Kim is among a new breed of South Korean entrepreneurs. (NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Memebox’s Doin Kim is among a new breed of South Korean entrepreneurs. (NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

South Korea’s next big economic leap: innovation Add to ...

Suzy Mortemer looks at the camera through a heavy veil of makeup. She wears her hair midnight black on the left, platinum blond on the right. On the YouTube video, her eyes pop out behind striking circle lenses – cosmetic contact lenses, popular in some Asian countries, that make the iris appear larger.

She pulls out a bag of “natural cocoon peeling silk balls.” The contents are, she explains, a tidy passel of exactly that: silkworm cocoons, designed to be heated in water, worn on a finger like a glove and used to scrub away dirt, dead skin and facial makeup. “I’m kind of creeped out by it, guys,” she says. “Like, no joke, there’s all kinds of organic matter on these. They are actual cocoons.”

But there’s a reason Ms. Mortemer, a California makeup reviewer, is trying them out, along with a cocoon facial soap she’s also pulled from a box of other beauty products delivered by Seoul startup Memebox. “Because it’s one of the top-selling products in Korea right now. So why wouldn’t I want to try it?”

South Korea is the world’s top shipbuilder, a major oil refiner, steel maker and car manufacturer. But beneath the glittering skyline of Seoul, that industrial might is giving way to something more creative. It’s something the country’s leaders hope will be transformational as they struggle to find a new footing amid the dimming of the last few decades of incandescent growth.

Seoul today is home to a thriving K-pop music and soap opera industry that has the world lusting for South Korean fashion and cosmetic surgery, beauty products – not to mention the coterie of ambitious entrepreneurs bringing those products to the world.

When Stephen Harper landed in Seoul this week to conclude Canada’s first free-trade agreement with an Asian country, he was there to smooth the path for Canadian beef and whisky into South Korean fridges, and for cheaper Hyundais and Kias into Canadian driveways.

But he was also building a Pacific-spanning corridor to a nation with a growing thirst for modernization, one that has found ways, in part by spurning conventional Western wisdom, to ignite the kinds of innovation that have often eluded Canada.

There is broad agreement, in business, politics or otherwise, that “without innovation, we, Korea, cannot live,” says Sung-Soo Seol, who leads the Seoul-based Hi-Tech Business Research Institute and edits the Asian Journal of Innovation & Policy. “Silicon Valley is the target of many levels of Korean policies.”

Little more than a century ago South Korea, much like its northern cousin today, was an imperial hermit kingdom, closed to the outside world and poor. But a flourishing of democracy – with a boisterous legislature frequented by brawls and even smoke bombs – and years of government-directed growth have brought a transformation more striking even than its headline-grabbing neighbours. South Korea is unencumbered by the heavy-handed oversight that plagues China, or the sometimes-oppressive insularity in Japan. It’s also the beneficiary of decades-long government efforts to make South Korean brains the source of its wealth.

No other developed country is more literate, or spends more in relative terms on research and development – nearly 3.5 per cent of South Korean gross domestic product, and growing at 10.5 per cent a year since 2002. The government is obsessed with turning the mountainous wedge of a country – a bit bigger than Nova Scotia, with a population of 50 million – into a nation of high-tech titans. Within months of taking office last year, South Korean President Park Geun-hye met with Bill Gates, Facebook Inc.’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google Inc. co-founder Larry Page. She has since sought to make good on promises to build up a “creative economy” for the country.

Canada is already home to some 200,000 people of Korean descent, and the deepening ties to their homeland offer promise to Canadian inventors looking for new buyers for their technologies. But South Korea also offers competitive peril. Among its most vibrant corporate offspring is a mobile chat company now signing up millions of new subscribers in Indonesia, eating up market share in a region where BlackBerry Ltd. has pinned its fortunes.

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