Voices from Asia: Heekyung (Jo) Min


In the first of a series talking to Foundation Honorary Advisers about how Covid-19 has impacted their respective countries, the Foundation's Felicity Roxburgh talks with Honorary Adviser Heekyung (Jo) Min, who is executive vice president and global head of Corporate Social Responsibility of Korean conglomerate CJ CheilJedang.

Watch the interview with Honorary Adviser, Heekyung (Jo) Min.

This following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

South Korea has been complimented on its COVID response and has been seen as relatively effective. What’s the situation like there now?

We actually started off taking care of the COVID situation very well, but I think it was because there was very good citizenship by the Korean people. Koreans are very used to wearing masks because of the yellow dust from China.

But because we were do doing so well every day — a couple of hundred cases and hardly any deaths — we were late in procuring the vaccine.

Right now we have had about 1500 deaths, which is way bigger than New Zealand, but we’re a country with 50 million people. Relatively we’re doing well. But the next month or so, everyone says, will be the real test because there is a variant type of COVID coming.

What’s the political environment around COVID at the moment?

In the beginning, I have to say the Koreans were not very perceptive about getting vaccinated, and that was one of the reasons the government was more lax in getting vaccines procured. However, now people want to get vaccinated but we haven’t really got anything. So this is becoming a political issue that we didn’t get enough vaccines.

But still, there were a lot of rumours that these vaccines are not good, so it really depends on the individual and who you talk to.

For me, I would like to get vaccinated ... According to the government schedule right now, I will probably get vaccinated in the third quarter of this year.

What are your thoughts around the ongoing impacts of COVID in the workplace?

Every historical event, and certainly the COVID situation is a historical event, every historical event has its plus and minuses. On the plus side, Korea was always a very efficient and fast-moving country and I think work was naturally more of a priority than the family situation. The COVID situation really brought in work-life balance and different types of work forms.

As a working mum, I had been talking to my company saying we should have more flexible work forms, whether it’s location or hours ... it never really happened. There was always a million reasons why we couldn’t do it. All the workplaces I have worked, we never had distance working or flexible hours. Those things were on paper but never really exercised or practised.

Now, people are realising this is working. At my office, because schools were closed, all the mums had to work at home, and also to keep social distancing we had to have maximum 50 percent, or ideally only 30 percent, workers in the office.

For society, the challenge is ... [CJ] is a large corporation and we can afford to do that. And the workers are professionals. But the benefits of these changes are not really shared with the other parts of society. If it can be done, it should be done for more people. But right now it’s only happening in the large corporations or multinationals. For the small local companies, everyone still goes to the office.

Do you think the changes you’re seeing will be permanent? Or do you think that the hurry-up, the efficiency culture will take hold again?

I think definitely some of them will stay permanently. I hope so. Even for me, I realised that one of the things that for Korean business, I personally didn’t like is … that we have to have a meal, like a business dinner, a business lunch. My schedule was really crazy. I had a [business] breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day. I hardly ate meals with my family at home. That was sort of normal for executives.

[With current restrictions on opening hours and customers] It is bad for the proprietors who run the restaurants, but many people realised we can actually do business without eating and without wine, drinking. These changes, I think, will definitely stay.

We’re not giving up efficiency, but I think other values are becoming as important. We’re slowly finding out that being efficient doesn’t necessarily lead directly to business success. Sensible balance is becoming really important.

At the corporate, we’re talking about ESG [environmental, social and corporate governance] these days... The company is making a profit, but while doing business they are caring about the environment and social issues. All these things were being talked over, but they have been accelerated because of the COVID situation.  

How is New Zealand perceived in South Korea. Do people have a vision of New Zealand now?

Korea is very advanced in social networks. People love to write about anything. Unfortunately, negative things outnumber positive things three to one.

New Zealand, on the other hand, anything about New Zealand is all positive ... The image of New Zealand is very eco-friendly, green, always care for the less strong members of society or someone who takes care of women, diversity is important. All of these values are the ones that young people consider important.

Also, these days with the COVID situation, New Zealand was cited as one of the models.

2020 was the biggest year for South Korean pop culture and of course CJ is in this world. Parasite won the Oscars, BTS broke the Guinness Book of Records... What can we expect in 2021?

Culture-wise, I think I’m a little bit different. I was hoping, because Parasite, it’s not a blockbuster movie... that was a sign that what we’re appreciated for is not these very fun, blockbuster movies. We’re recognised for independent, artistic movies.

I’m hoping that the recognition by Hollywood of Parasite, means more of these independent creators have more chance to share their views, their voices. That people will recognise that whatever the cultural barrier was before, that it’s lower. It’s just a great thing for all of Asia, for Asian film.

Unfortunately, nothing really happened. That was a real bummer. Many of the productions were postponed. Usually it’s heyday right after the Oscars but because of COVID last year it didn’t happen.

For drama, Netflix dramas have been very popular. I just had a businesswoman visiting from Italy... it was really funny that she had watched three dramas, all of them were Korean drama and they were all the same as mine.  

Jo Min’s TV drama recommendations:

  • Crash Landing on You  [currently available on Netflix NZ]
  • Guardian: The Lonely and Great God  [not currently available on Netflix NZ]

About Jo Min

Asia New Zealand Foundation Honorary Adviser Heekyung (Jo) Min is the Executive Vice President and global head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of CJ CheilJedang in Korea. CJ Group is a conglomerate with four core businesses: food, bio-pharma, entertainment and media, and home shopping and logistics.

Based in Seoul, Jo Min started her decade-long career in finance in New York, Tokyo and London. She later served as Director General of Investment Promotion at the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ) in Korea. Much of her recent work has focused on promoting the importance of sustainable business around the globe.