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[Herald Interview] ‘Startups, SMEs hold key to Korea’s future’

Minister in vanguard to raise SMEs’ global status by turning COVID-19 crisis into opportunity

Minister of SMEs and Startups Park Young-sun (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Minister of SMEs and Startups Park Young-sun (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Since Minister Park Young-sun took the helm of South Korea’s SMEs and Startups Ministry in April 2019, a lot has happened. For one, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pummel all industries worldwide, and most devastatingly, smaller businesses.

At this juncture, Park may be the most suitable representative voice supporting startups and small and medium-sized enterprises, with her expansive journalistic and political career driven by her support for the principle of balanced economic growth. And she has never been one to shy away from pushing her convictions.

Since taking office, Park has been in the vanguard of one of key tasks of the Moon Jae-in administration -- to revitalize SMEs, which account for more than 90 percent of the jobs and 99 percent of all companies here.

In the post-coronavirus era, Park said she was confident that Korean startups and SMEs will play a pivotal role in a new, digital economy. And the ministry will help them to scale up in global markets, Park stressed in an interview with The Korea Herald on Thursday.

Explaining that she had just participated in a meeting between President Moon Jae-in and young leaders selected by Forbes Under 30 Asia, Park candidly expressed her fascination for the future of budding enterprises.

“I was quite impressed with their innovative business ideas. They did not hesitate to make suggestions to the president, not to mention asking questions that hit the core. I could feel how the world was changing through their questions. What we aim to do is to discover such promising firms and help them scale up.”

Since the inauguration of the Moon administration, the Small and Medium Business Administration was elevated to the status of a ministry in June 2017. Park is the second minister to serve since.

“(As the minister) what I’m proudest of is that startups had the highest investment ever last year. This is the most active growth area since the Moon government took office.”

In 2019, investment in startups reached 4.3 trillion won ($3.4 billion), renewing its all-time high, and five unicorns -- startups with a value of over 1 trillion won -- were created.

“The digital economy is an inevitable global trend, and we need to be prepared for it. That can be possible through innovative startups. ... In the face of the pandemic, I saw many firms turn the crisis into an opportunity, by creating non-contact services, coronavirus maps, mask maps and diagnostic kits.”

Such innovative digital firms will be “the backbone that will support the Korean version of the New Deal,” she said. The New Deal policy was announced by Moon last month to create jobs and booth growth, focusing on digital infrastructure, non-contact industries and digitalization of social overhead capital.

Park was a journalist at MBC for 22 years. She entered politics in 2004 as a spokesperson for the then-ruling Uri Party and the same year was elected as the 17th member of the National Assembly. In the Democratic Party, she served as chief policymaker and supreme council member and floor leader. She has helped President Moon as co-chief of his election campaign. Before she was tapped to lead the SME Ministry, Park was the first woman to chair the Legislation and Judiciary Committee.

Park has been known as an avid patron of startups, by serving her three legislative terms representing Guro-gu, home to Seoul’s largest digital complexes where startups and small companies are concentrated. She also played a leading role in passing bills related to economic democratization, such as expanding punitive damages and regulating work when she was the chairperson of the judiciary committee in 2013.

Since leading the ministry, Park has initiated a voluntary win-win cooperation project to connect smaller businesses with conglomerates. She has also pushed the “Brand K” campaign to help SMEs expand overseas. 

Below are excerpts from the interview. 

The Korea Herald: What do you think is the biggest hurdle that Korean startups and SMEs face in going global?

Park Young-sun: Until now, many companies started their businesses only targeting the domestic market, with the view that they could go global when the business is successful here first. They think the local market of 50 million population is a stable market. But once they try to go global after having a presence here, it is too late. Businesses should target the global market from the start. Gladly, I am seeing more promising startups recently. They are startups like Qanda, Classting and Laundrygo. Qanda, a free math solution app using artificial intelligence that has now secured around 8 million subscribers worldwide. Classting, a learning content that connects teachers, students and parents to communicate, is now provided in 25 countries in 15 different languages. Laundrygo, a laundry service using Bluetooth-connected laundry collection box, has applied for patents for its business model in the US and China.

KH: Brand K is still in its beginning stage to become known worldwide. Please introduce it.

Park: It’s like the Swiss Label certification mark. The government recognizes that the products are of high quality, reasonably priced and reliable.

In September last year, the first batch of 38 products was labeled with Brand K and it worked. Since the certification, their combined exports rose 114 billion won to 1.5 trillion won in the September-December period on-year. The second batch of 81 products was labeled with Brand K in April this year. They include Vitamin C brand Lemona, whose sales surged after K-pop powerhouse BTS endorsed, and diagnostic kits exported to more than 100 nations amid the pandemic. Although the names of the diagnostic kit companies were little known overseas, users trusted the products as the Korean government recognizes them. 

KH: What do you think are the key competitive features of Korean startups and SMEs?

Park: Korea has the characteristics of innovation, speed and customer orientation with a high-level technology. There are also many small and medium-sized enterprises that have the ability to read global trends quickly, adapt to changing situations and produce innovative products which are the world’s first.

KH: Global investment, mergers and exit are required for startups and SMEs to advance into overseas markets. How can the ministry help?

Park: We will strengthen global cooperation to expand opportunities for startups to advance into global markets and attract foreign capital.

In order to attract foreign capital, the ministry has established and operated a global fund worth about 3 trillion won in cooperation with foreign venture capitalists since 2013. We will continue to collaborate with global venture capitalists.

By Shin Ji-hye (
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