Vol. 5 Num 988 Sun. March 11, 2007  

S Koreans drawn to India's business opportunities

With South Korea now the largest foreign investor in India and a leading supplier of cheap appliances and cars to its swelling middle class, New Delhi's tiny Korean community is growing fast.

It has been a quiet influx, with Korean restaurants opening in ones and twos in recent years, as the low-key Koreans increasingly look to India as an investment and employment alternative to China.

There are now 7,000 Koreans living in India compared to 2,500 three years ago, more than half of them in the capital, and 16 percent of the students at the American Embassy School are Korean, the second largest group after Americans.

Koreans here agree that the big three "chaebols" as the conglomerates are known at home -- Hyundai Motors, Samsung and LG Electronics -- led the way and on their backs many other companies from the peninsula have set up shop.

In a decade they went from newcomers to dominant players in their sectors -- a fifth of car-owning Indians drive a Hyundai, while about a third of fridge owners have an LG in the kitchen.

But India wasn't Korea's first choice, with its reputation for water and electricity problems, and its interminable delays.

"The cost of labour increased. So they wanted to manufacture abroad by using cheap labour. They chose China first," said Lee Joong-Hoon, head of the Korean Association of India.

But China started to become more restrictive for foreign investors, with "many government regulations," said Hoon.

"In the meantime in India these three companies were successful," said Lee. "Their vendors also came in a group. The vendors were also successful. After that people came here."

In 2005, POSCO steel company's 12-billion-dollar deal to build a plant in eastern India made Korea the country's single biggest investor. Bilateral trade will pass 10 billion dollars later this year.

The Korean population in India is only likely to increase with about 1,000 Koreans coming to India to live each year, according to the South Korean embassy.

There are great opportunities than those offered by more developed countries, the Korean Association's Lee said, with Koreans also starting to look at real estate, retail and infrastructure.

"I have more room to do something," he said. "If India was developed like Europe or America, then much less to do."

Lee has seen a lot of changes in the last 20 years, including almost daily flights to Seoul and new Korean restaurants -- there are about six in the capital now. Two Korean soap operas air on state-run Doordarshan television.

At the Secret Garden, the English name of a restaurant discreetly concealed in a house in an upmarket South Delhi neighbourhood, businessmen and students gather for Korean food with a home-cooked flavour.

"Indian masalas and Korean food are so different, a sensitive person cannot touch the food here," said Park Soon-Ho, a former Buddhist monk who prepares specialties from Jeollado province in the southwest of South Korea.

Park scours the markets for good-quality pork for Korean barbecue dishes, or begs friends to bring in stocks of beef, a meat sorely missed by Koreans in India, where cows are considered sacred.

"Korea was so poor after the Korean War. A lot of people died of hunger. So we are crazy about meat eating and now we cannot change," said Park, who has also written a travel book about Myanmar.

But, after years of traveling, Park said he now feels more at home in India than in Korea.

"You have good persons here, bad persons here, a lot of variety in this country," he said, calling India his "destiny".

For many Koreans, who hail from a country far more orderly and homogenous than India, the country's sheer variety -- and chaos -- is striking.

There is tremendous interest in today's India, still known by many in Korea as a Buddhist tourism destination, a Korean embassy official said, estimating that eight to 10 news teams visit India each month.

Last year 70,000 Koreans visited India, compared to 30,000 five years earlier.

"There is so much variety, diversity, I can experience so many other things," said Jang Ducksang, customer care manger for Hyundai India, who has lived in the capital for five years.