On a recent trip to Korea, I visited Gwanghwamun Plaza in Seoul and saw magnificent statues of two Korean heroes: King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sun-shin.
Both men were remarkably creative. Their accomplishments exemplify Korea’s rich history of innovation.
King Sejong was the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty. In the 15th century, he created Hangul, the alphabetic system of writing still used in modern day Korea.
The genius of Hangul lies in its simplicity. Consisting of only 24 letters—14 consonants and 10 vowels—Hangul is radically easier to learn than Hanja, which was the primary system of writing prior to Hangul. Consisting of thousands of adapted Chinese characters, Hanja was extremely difficult and time consuming to learn. Consequently, only the privileged aristocrats were literate.
The creation of Hangul made it possible for even commoners to learn to read and write. Not only did Hangul increase the literacy rate, but it also enabled Koreans to spend less time learning how to read and write so they could spend more time acquiring knowledge.
Admiral Yi Sun-shin was a Korean naval commander during the 16th century. One of Yi’s greatest accomplishments was his innovative design of the turtle ship. Improving on earlier versions, Yi redesigned the turtle ship to support his naval strategy of avoiding hand-to-hand combat with the Japanese navy.
The Japanese specialized in boarding enemy ships and fighting hand-to-hand. To prevent this from happening, Yi covered the deck of his turtle boats with sharp iron spikes that would impale anyone attempting to board. His turtle boats also featured U-shaped bottoms—instead of the standard V-shaped bottoms—that made them more maneuverable during combat and provided a more stable cannon-firing platform. Yi’s strategy of firing at the Japanese navy from a distance was extremely successful.
Centuries after King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sun-shin, Korea is currently one of the most innovative countries in the world.
This was made possible in part by the establishment of a national innovation system by the Korean government shortly after the First Five Year Plan for Economic Development was introduced in 1962.
Over the past half century, the government has implemented a series of policy measures to enhance the innovative capabilities of universities, public research institutes, and businesses. For example, it has promoted the mass production of highly-qualified research personnel, constructed government-sponsored research institutes, and motivated private enterprises to establish their own research institutes.
Korea’s national innovation system initially had the most impact on public research institutes and businesses. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that universities began to significantly increase their R&D expenditures.
Having recognized the importance of innovation to enhancing its economic competitiveness, Korea now has one of the highest rates of spending on R&D in the world. As a result, it has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Recently, the Korean government launched a five-year green technology plan with a budget of US$84 billion, Korean companies beat out international competitors for a US$20 billion contract to supply the United Arab Emirates with four nuclear power plants, and Samsung—the Korean industrial conglomerate—signed a US$6.6 billion deal to build 2,500 megawatts of wind and solar power in Ontario, Canada.
I anticipate more statues being placed at Gwanghwamun Plaza in the near future.