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Korean-Americans Build Cultural Inroads in U.S. Construction

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Attendees at the International Bridge Conference, held in June at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, saw something they had never seen before: the 3,500-sq-ft main pavilion was devoted to the all-stars of the South Korean engineering and construction world. The exhibition included Samsung, Daewoo, Hyundai, rail and highway agencies, and governmental research laboratories.

It was only the second time in the conference's 27-year history that a country—rather than a U.S. state—received the spotlight. In 2007, when China's bridges were the focus, the conference theme was “Bridging Continents, Sharing Ideas.” At this year's event, the theme was “Bridges Without Borders.”

Some 80 Koreans traveled to Pittsburgh hopeful if not overly confident, given the economy, that they might still attain the Holy Grail of doing business in the U.S.

For many Korean-Americans like Sung Moon, a senior engineer with the California Dept. of Transportation, it was a watershed moment. “I am very proud of my home country because of its rapid development in engineering and construction technology in the last two decades,” he says.

Korea is but one of many developed countries seeking to enter the U.S. construction market.

But Korea, like China, is a rare bird: a nation that developed rapidly in a short time as well as an Asian country where cultural differences may pose more of a challenge to doing business in the U.S. than for its European peers.

And like Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans are serving as the bridge between cultures. Moon notes that many have already been hired by Korean construction firms.

At the conference, Moon and Chun Ho Yeom, who is a fellow with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, spent much of their time translating for the Korean delegation and introducing them to industry players.

“I tell them it's not going to be easy. They're in the big leagues now,” he says.

Korea Express Corp. is willing to take a swing. This year, it opened a Los Angeles corporation, Korea Expressway & Smart Transportation America, with two other Korean firms. It hopes to attract clients with its smart-bridge weight-tolerance evaluation technology, which has measured the weight capacity of 200 Korean bridges without interrupting traffic flow, says Michael Cho, the agency's research director.

The U.S. patent-pending technology provides real-time load ratings using wireless sensors, a laptop and a single vehicle, he says. The process can cut the traditional cost of bridge inspection in half, the company claims.

Further, the budding and politically uncertain U.S. high-speed-rail market is attracting Korean firms that have helped build over 200 miles of high-speed rail in their own country.

While China's systems are cheaper but less developed, says Moon, “Japan and Europe have the most advanced systems but also the most expensive. Korea is somewhere in between. That's the selling point.”

Another selling point is Korea's extensive experience building in other nations and with public-private partnerships.

“The language barrier is the first obstacle they will confront,” says Moon. “The construction processes here are also obviously new to foreign engineers.”

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