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It takes two to tango to improve French-Korean business ties

After two decades of living in Korea, Philippe Li is going back to his home in Paris, but that does not mean he is finished with Korea.

Li, the outgoing French Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry president, will be representing his ethnic home on a wider scale to the body that brings together and supports the development of the 114 French chambers abroad.

“When I was elected as a member of the board of directors of UCCIFE (The Union of French Chambers of Commerce and Industry Abroad), it was a kind of recognition not only of what the chamber (in Korea) has been doing, but also what Korea can mean to France,” he told The Korea Herald.

Over 20 years ago, Li came to Korea to live and work in the home of his parents. Almost right away he started working for the French Chamber. Six years ago he was elected president, a title he has held with great pride.

Looking back at his over 20 years in Korea, Li remarked that the country he calls home has made great improvements in opening up its market to the outside world.

“Now with the free trade agreement, I think we will have a new step, another momentum but there are still a lot of issues for foreign companies here,” he said.

The first is the perception of foreigners as outsiders. However, Li notes that he has seen this notion become less prevalent as the nation welcomes outside influences and cultures.

“But it’s still an issue,” he said. “It creates distortion.”

On the other side of the coin are foreign companies operating in Korea who “do not perform adequately.”

“Many companies lack the knowledge of the culture, environment, the people,” he said.

Li explained that the networking culture in Korea is a good example. Foreign representatives of companies could make stronger efforts to build proper contacts.
Outgoing French Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Philippe Li (Yoav Cerralbo/The Korea Herald)
Outgoing French Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Philippe Li (Yoav Cerralbo/The Korea Herald)

“A lot of foreign companies complain about the Korean environment; how overregulated it is, its lack of flexibility, anti-foreign sentiment. They are not entirely wrong, but one of the responsibilities for these failures lies with foreign companies because they don’t do the right homework before landing and while they are here,” he said.

Changing a society’s perceptions can take at least two generations according to many social scientists, “but it’s happening,” he said.

Then how to change the sentiments of foreign companies who have invested in sophisticated strategies and market studies?

“It’s not easy because sometimes they come with very firm views of the market,” Li said.

Entering into a new environment that is completely outside one’s comfort zone or worldview is never easy, whether it’s Korea, China or Europe.

“Once you land in a market you must observe how people behave, how they think, what is the real meaning inside people, and sometimes I feel that people don’t take the time to get into that,” he said.

That is where the Chamber, the embassies, consultants and lawyers come into play ― by guiding them in the right direction with tips and indications on what should be done to be truly successful in this market.

The Korea-EU free trade agreement will bring many new opportunities and links for foreign and Korean companies.

Li hopes that the image of France, while positive, will mature into a more rounded one instead of being focused on food, fashion and vacations.

“I think it must come from both sides,” he said. “French companies have to be more active and more aggressive in the Korean market.”

Li will also leave his post as a lawyer for Kim and Chang to take up his new duty as partner with the international law firm of Jones Day in Paris where he will oversee corporate law and projects between French firms and their counterparts in East Asia.

“We are going to work with Korean companies who have outbound projects. So it’s a perfect way for me to remain connected,” he said. “Plus I will be visiting Korea often.”

By Yoav Cerralbo (