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South Korea: Busan Bank dares to think big

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Illustration: Getty

With its razor-sharp focus on SMEs, technology firms and ESG, Busan Bank has come a long way in the last 50 years, and is moving in the right direction.

Busan Bank’s chief executive Ahn Kam Chan comes to work every day with two big questions in mind: who is the next tech unicorn in the same vein as South Korean e-commerce giant Coupang? And shouldn’t it be located in Busan – Korea’s second-biggest city?

The idea of creating a Silicon Valley of sorts in Asia’s fourth-largest economy is hardly new. Ever since his election in 2017, president Moon Jae-in has talked big about catalysing a startup boom to disrupt Korea’s aging, rigid economy. The same went for his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who started her four-year tenure in 2013 promising a more creative and disruptive business culture.

As people in Seoul like to boast, Korea already has a hotbed of innovation energy: Gangnam. The glitzy upscale neighbourhood that Korean singer Psy made famous in his 2012 dance-pop song is where the venture capital gang hang out. It’s there, along a street called Teheran-ro – dubbed Teheran Valley – that some of the largest Korean and international companies, including Google, have set up shop.

The trouble, of course, is the big corporate groups that monopolise every corner of the Korean economy, and that essentially decide which startups thrive – and which die.

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