Sunshik Min: “Educating Younger Learners – An Analysis of Korean, American, and Japanese Priorities”

Sunshik Min is the president of YBM, a education company specializing in language instruction. Min also serves as an advisor to the Asia Center at Harvard University.

HPR: Could you briefly describe the history of YBM?

Min: YBM started as a bilingual magazine publishing company 51 years ago. In the 70s, we had a music company along with the publishing company. But we later sold this to SK Telecom, and today it is known as Loen Entertainment, one of the leading entertainment companies in Asia. Also, we entered the language school business in the early 80s. We originally started with language schools just staffed by Korean teachers, but later we added bilingual teachers. We were the first company to offer native English-speaking teachers in Korea. At that same time we also started a test preparation business.
HPR: Can you give an overview of the differences in education among the United States, South Korea, and Japan?
Min: I think the United States is very different from Korea and Japan. The US focuses on individual performance and development while Korea and Japan put heavier emphasis on group development. The end result is that the US is not as strong as Korea in K12 education but have really good universities. That’s why so many so many Asians go to the States to study. I don’t think you can have both a focus on individual performance and group development. There is a tradeoff.
HPR: What role has YBM taken in facilitating the study abroad boom in South Korea?
Min: We were the first company to recruit Korean students for study abroad programs in the early 80s. It was at this time when the Korean government deregulated international travel so that Korean university students were able to travel during vacations even if they weren’t staying abroad long term. Up until then, the Korean government didn’t allow Korean students to go abroad for short periods. We were the first company that organized this new type of travel.
HPR: Although the Korean government spends the largest part of its budget on education and Korean parents spend huge amounts of money on private education, Korean universities do not have as large a presence on university rankings compared to schools in the US and Western Europe. Why is this?
Min: The history of higher education in Korea is relatively short. It will take at least two generations for a higher education institution to gain a reputation. Also, Korean universities are lagging behind because the government controls them too much. Institutions of higher education need to be risk takers. There could be some failures but they need to try to innovate somehow. In Korea, the government controls everything: the student body, the budget, the scope of their activities, etc. Even if you want to open a new department, you need government approval. It’s not a good environment for higher education.
HPR: But if education is the largest part of government spending in South Korea, wouldn’t one expect to see a favorable environment for universities?
Min: I think the Korean government does a good job providing a general education for the mass population. But what is good for the masses may not be good for specialization. Also, in terms of the development of the economy, Korea is a late-comer to industrialization. Universities are not necessarily linked to industry but they are parallel. Universities need certain resources that only real economic power would be able to support.
HPR: How has your experience at Harvard Business School help you with your business career?
Min: I received my Master’s degree from MIT Sloan. Then I came to Harvard Business School. I think I accumulated ten years’ worth of real-world knowledge and experience by taking only two years of coursework at the Business School. In addition, I spent two years writing a dissertation. It was a period in which I was able to learn how to lay out my ideas and how to present my ideas to people.
HPR: In twenty years, where do you see YBM?
Min: The Korean economy is going through big changes. We are becoming more mature. The population is getting smaller. So I wish for my company to remain the leader in English education in Asia. Another area I’m focusing on are the Korea International Schools (KIS). I have three campuses in Korea. Not every Korean is allowed to enter because of government regulation. But I think it is one way I could experiment with how a K12 school could be run in the future. I hope my current involvement with the KIS could contribute to the development of Korean K12 education in the long run.

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