Ethnic entrepreneurs in Seoul, South Korea: Who are they? And why are they important?

By Minkyung Koh and Ed Malecki, Ohio State University

For the past decade, Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, has witnessed the emergence of two groups of ethnic entrepreneurs: Nigerians and Pakistanis. Even though South Korea has experienced a rapid increase of immigrants from all over the world, their emergence is an unexpected phenomenon because most immigrants to the country are labor workers or spouses from less-developed countries, or elite foreigners from developed countries. Who are these entrepreneurs, why are they in Seoul, and what does their emergence mean for Seoul and other Asian cities?

Ethnic business in Itaewon, Seoul (photo by Minkyung Koh)

Ethnic business in Itaewon, Seoul (photo by Minkyung Koh)

Ethnic entrepreneurship studies have developed mostly in Europe and America which has relatively long history of immigration. In this literature, Ethnic entrepreneurs have been depicted as separated from the host country and depending on the coethnic community.  However, our case study (Koh and Malecki 2014) finds that ethnic entrepreneurship not only relies on their coethnic community but also can be not separated from the Korean host society. Pakistani entrepreneurs in Seoul, who mainly do import-oriented business from Pakistan, are similar to the traditional ethnic entrepreneurs who are largely independent of the host society. To purchase Pakistani goods, they transact with mostly Pakistani entrepreneurs throughout Korea and resell goods to the Pakistani community. In contrast, Nigerian entrepreneurs concentrate on exporting Korean goods to Nigeria so they are deeply connected to Nigerians as well as Koreans.

In a globalising era, why are these ethnic entrepreneurs important? How can we explain their transnational trading activities? As traders, their transnational activities cross borders and contribute to visibility in urban landscapes and the flows between home and host countries. Ethnic entrepreneurs in Seoul are spontaneous actors of contemporary globalisation. Their trade connections are an instance of ‘globalisation from below’, which represents the processes of global activities by voluntary actors (Mathews et al. 2012). The emergence of ethnic entrepreneurs in Seoul shows that immigrants are not passive agents who follow global economic or political power.

Is this globalization from below possible to only Pakistanis and Nigerians? We carefully answer ‘no’. Transnational trading activities in Seoul are also expanding beyond the Nigerians and Pakistanis. Other ethnic entrepreneurs such as Mongolians and Uzbekistanis run their businesses in Seoul, too. The rapid growth of ethnic communities and entrepreneurs demonstrates that Seoul facilitates – and is constructed by – the globalization from below by immigrants. The fact that the Korean government has released a set of measures to promote foreign entrepreneurs (Gov’t luring foreign entrepreneurs) reflects this new phenomenon. And it seems that this measure may contribute to the continuous growth of ethnic entrepreneurs.  The relationship between ethnic entrepreneurs (or immigrants) and cities has received little attention in urban studies. Research on world cities focuses mainly on economic and technological functions (GaWC 2014). Our article would be a first step to probe the relationship between migrants and cities.

Even though our article probes the globalisation from below by ethnic entrepreneurs in Seoul, we would like to expand its applicability. Already other cities such as Guangzhou in China or Hong Kong also have experienced African entrepreneurs (Mathews 2007; Mathews and Yang 2012). Asian cities have been considered to be accelerating a homogenizing globalisation mainly emulating Western global cities so that their actual localized globalisation has not been fully explored. In contrast to typical indices of global cities such as cross-border linkages initiated by transnational corporations and foreign direct investment, this globalisation from below by immigrants might be a footstep to understand grounded globalisation of Asian global cities.

About the authors: Minkyung Koh is a PhD student in the department of geography at the Ohio State University. Ed Malecki is a Professor of Geography at the same institution. 

60-world2 GaWC 2014 The world according to GaWC 2012 Accessed 11 May 2014

 Koh M and Malecki E J 2014 The emergence of ethnic entrepreneurs in Seoul, South Korea: globalisation from below The Geographical Journal doi: 10.1111/geog.12111

 Mathews G 2007 Chungking Mansions: a center of “low-end globalization” Ethnology 46 169–83

 Mathews G, Ribeiro G L and Alba Vega C 2012 Globalization from below: the world’s other economy, Routledge, New York

 Mathews G and Yang Y 2012 How Africans pursue low-end globalization in Hong Kong and Mainland China Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 41 95–120

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