A Small Key Opens Big Doors

The Private Autobiography of Kim Hyang-soo

reviewed by NB Armstrong (June 2013)


Kim Hyang-soo is one of those twentieth century South Korean industrialists whose life’s fortunes, if defined by a line tracing highs and lows across a chart, would follow the ups and downs of his country. He lived the long century, 1912-2003, and for most of it was able to draw on the destiny-shaping impetus that he was, during every waking moment, toiling for the betterment of his nation's workforce. 

Kim's autobiography, A Small Key Opens Big Doors, was first published in Korean in 1993. The twenty year wait before its translation into English feels like a prudent pause in which South Korea’s economic status could be conclusively settled, particularly after the ‘97 Asian Financial Crisis. Since then, the Miracle of the Han, of which Kim Hyang-soo must be considered a central diviner, has become quotidian reality as permanent entry into the advanced first world. Permanent, that is, barring another Korean War.

During the northern communist forces' occupation of Seoul, Kim got his family out of the city. He spent the daylight hours in the hills before riding into Seoul and sleeping in the basement of his Euljiro office at night. During a communist round up of the non-proletarian and ideologically suspect, Kim was lucky to be able to pass an envelope to a pliable northern interrogator. "I felt as though I had bought another lifetime." In fact, he had bought two. During a later check on his premises, he was forced to hide in one of a row of sacks which were then randomly bayoneted. Kim survived into a world "turned into a mudpit," a world in which, when Seoul was retaken and suspicion fell in particular on stay-behind businessmen, his meager leftover gold and money was confiscated. Subsequent small kindnesses restored Kim’s faith, and the good fortune of running into his sons on a rail track between Seoul and Suwon meant the Kim family was intact and he was ready to rebuild his prewar business.

For Kim Hyang-soo, bicycles had been a child’s metonym for the colonial struggle against the Japanese. As a kid he had pleaded for one, desiring youthful mobility in a country under foreign lockdown. As an adult, he realized, as had already proven to be the case in the colonizer nation, that the bicycle industry was the small key for industry as a whole; that the machinery and parts involved in bicycle manufacturing turn growth in other machine industries, so forming a modern industrial base. Kim was a small key himself, active in petitioning the government and his colleagues to expedite the development of the bicycle industry in order to kickstart Korean national renewal. His activism took him as far as becoming National Assemblyman for his hometown, standing and succeeding as an independent candidate amidst the bristling "thugs" of the Freedom Party. Then, following a vote in favor by his supporters, he decided to join the ruling Freedom Party in order to acquire practical influence, rather than remain a symbolic protest voice. Kim’s interest was primarily economic and his decision was a little exemplum typifying how economics trumped politics in the development of democracy in South Korea. Kim then goes on to describe an incident in which he furiously disputed the use of a piece of land with a colleague - then President of the Horse Racing Association and a close friend of President Rhee - to illustrate the stymieing self-interest of the era’s political scene. Politicians could be, Kim realized before judiciously quitting the game after nationwide protests following the 1960 election, glass flecked speed bumps on the road to development and prosperity.

Or they could be Park Chung-hee. The growth and export urgency with which Park imbued his industrial captains suited Kim Hyang-soo’s missionary will to expand. Park Chung-hee, as much as advanced economic status, is the "big door" to which Kim claims access. The small key is the semi conductor. Kim's ANAM corporation diversified into the chip industry at a time when no one else produced them in South Korea, when many American companies resisted doing so on the grounds of the sector's expensive pace of technological obsolescence, and when Kim himself was nearing traditional retirement age. But he somehow persuades his sons, comfortably ensconced in American academia, to give up their 9-5, golfing, leisured life of Americana and come live in their father’s rudimentary factory. Any reader remotely familiar with the details of South Korea’s generation-crunching industrial hyper development will be unsurprised by what happens next: mystified grappling with unheard of technology, uncooperative customs officials, essential interventions by Park's Blue House, catastrophic wash out during the country's worst ever floods, plaudits from American investors at ANAM’s speed of recovery, diversification into color TV's, partnerships with Japanese giants, the attention of Time and Newsweek, and, finally, though not many years after, an overwhelming global market share of the semiconductor industry.

How did it happen? Kim Hyang-soo was a studied dreamer, in so much as he took literal note of his nocturnal visions’ admonitory content. Influenced by a childhood episode in which his mother recovered from cataracts after a family figure warns her in a dream not to use water from a particular well, Kim pays close attention to his subconscious directives. One night, as American forces begin their advance to retake Seoul, the memory of a recurring childhood dream drives him out of his basement office into the countryside. His building is obliterated some hours later. Much later on, at the threshold of his second great industrial venture, he dreams of countless small objects stamped with the word “reliability.” Still not fluent in English, he takes his dream as having the force of something precognitive, something related to his chip venture, and the founding philosophy upon which to proceed. Seeing them as “a bridge between latent consciousness and the real world,” Kim, you get the feeling, identifies his dreams as more practically facilitative than the politicians supposed to bridge projects of the will to the real world.

More telling than dreams is an incident in which Kim Hyang-soo’s fledgling semiconductor company is completing a small order for two hundred "headers", the production of which requires a component called a collet. Unfortunately, ANAM’s collet breaks. It is impossible to complete the order by deadline date if the company waits the ten days a replacement part will take to be delivered. Instead the firm improvises, making collets out of nails, meeting the order deadline, garnering excellent reviews, and in so doing having defeated a little American prejudice of the time about Korean industrial product specifications. In the medium term, the workforce explodes into the thousands. In the long term the semiconductor is a lightning conductor for Korean entry into the first world.

On May Day 2013, Park Chung-hee’s daughter, the new president Park Geun-hye, convened the first meeting on trade and investment in 34 years, the last one having been arraigned by her father. She might have presented attendees with a copy of Kim’s privately printed, commercially unavailable memoir. As a narrative of transformative Korean pioneering, Kim Hyang-soo’s A Small Key Opens Big Doors would have reminded those present that a country needs something more than a mere improvement in bottom line export statistics.

NB Armstrong is a writer and translator. His latest books, Korean Straight Lines and This Gangster is One of Your Own, are now available. [email protected]

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