The ten growth engine industries for the future in South Korea, ranging from biomedicine to next-generation semi-conductors and intelligent robots, was introduced by the government in 2003. The core technologies upon which these industries depend were allocated a share of up to 50% of total public Research and Development (R&D) investment. Today the country is back on a strong financial footing and the future looks bright for this ambitious Asian country; in a worldwide comparison, the proportion of its GDP spent on R&D–at around 3%–is second only to Japan, and ahead of the US, Germany and France. Indeed, South Korea’s R&D structure is very similar to the Japanese model, linking central government, universities and private-sector businesses, but with even more reliance on private investment. In 2007, this accounted for 80% of total R&D spending against 75% in Japan. Last year, South Korea’s total investment in R&D was USD28.5 billion. 

South Korea is particularly impressive in the domain of patents. Over the decade leading up to 2004, the number of registered patents tripled. In 2007, South Koreans registered 7061 patents, placing it fourth-highest worldwide (behind the US, Japan and Germany but ahead of France, the UK and China). In terms of patents by total population, South Korea is in 2nd position, and for patents by GDP, it is in 1st place. 

As a relatively small country, South Korea cannot do everything. And as a country largely lacking in natural resources, it must depend on its wits. This leads to making choices; it is better for the country to be spectacular at a few technologies than mediocre in many. The priorities currently identified by the government for scientific and technological research are amongst the fields of robotics and e-commerce. 

South Korea is embracing robotics with the same intensity as they did with high-speed broadband, widescreen televisions, and smartphones. Robot Land, a state-subsidized 758 billion won theme park featuring futuristic rides as well as research and development labs, is set to launch in 2016. Korea hopes to make a name for itself with its next-gen industrial robotization that could offer stiff competition to the Japanese robotics industry in the longer run. The ministry’s previous plan, which ran from 2008 through 2012, produced practical artificial-intelligence robots like small cleaning robots and surgical robots. It formed a small industry worth about $1.9 billion and attracted private sector investment comprising 54% of total robot investment last year, among which only 14% came from large conglomerates. Such robots also generated exports of about $600 million in 2012. A key focus of this new South Korean policy will be the development of robots for disaster recovery and rescue operations. 

South Korea also stands out globally in the e-commerce industry against major U.S retailers. What makes it stand out is its strong currency and passion for consumer shopping online. The country also possesses a broad access to credit cards for online payments and world leadership in broadband speed and penetration. Nearly 80% of South Korea’s population is online, which makes it the most connected country in the world. According to eMarketer, retail ecommerce spending in South Korea is forecast to rise from a total to $19.0 billion to $25.3 billion by 2017, an increase of 33%. Borderless zones mean South Koreans could easily shop overseas retailers to find lower prices, leverage parcel forwarding to save on shipping costs, and join online communities to resell imported items they do not want. Some of the largest e-commerce channels by far are GMarket, Auction and 11st, which are akin to ebay. Despite external indices showing rapid growth, e-business implementation is still lagging behind advanced companies. To remunerate this, the government has decided to develop information communication networks, technology development and standardization more efficiently through the High-Speed Information Communication Network Advancement Plan. 

Fifty years ago, the country was poorer than Bolivia and Mozambique; today, it is richer than New Zealand and Spain, with a per capita income of almost $23,000. South Korea has an extraordinary ability to adapt and learn from setbacks. The country was badly burnt during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, but due to significant government reforms, it was able to recover almost very quickly. Its labor force puts in 2,200 hours of work a year, half as much as the Dutch or Germans. In fact, their reaction to the 2008 slump was to work harder still. Most of South Korea’s miracle has been the work of big conglomerates. It also seems that South Korea sends a higher proportion of students to tertiary sector than any other country, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and these students do exceptionally well on Math and Sciences. With this base, nurturing a generation of scientists and engineers is very much a possible dream. The more Korea brings the qualities of domestic innovation to the fore, the better are its chances of blazing a new trail for itself in becoming a hub of innovation.