Interview: Amy Jackson – President of the American Chamber Korea

Amy Jackson AMCHAM
[Airiang News]

The American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) has a long history of involvement in the South Korean economy going back to 1953, when it opened its first office here following the Korean War. The organization now counts in its ranks over 2,000 individual members representing over 1,000 member companies doing business here on the peninsula.

In August of 2009, AMCHAM tapped Ithaca, New York native, Amy Jackson, to take the helm, calling on her esteemed career working in Asia in both the public and private sectors. She has remained the president of AMCHAM ever since.

Ms. Jackson studied government at Pomona College in California before completing her graduate studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC – the place back home that she now calls “home.”


Following her studies at Johns Hopkins, Jackson took a job with NASA as an international relations specialist. Fluent in Japanese, she was a lead negotiator in numerous US-Japan space agreements during her eight-year tenure with the American space agency. Not bad at all, for a first job.

In Korea, forming mutually-beneficial relationships and trust are important if you are looking for long-term success. As with any other foreign market, efforts to understand the Korean market and culture are needed.

Following her work with NASA, she became the Director of Japanese Affairs for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative from 1998-2002. She then served as the Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Korea until 2005, and was involved in the initial formulation of the recently passed Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and South Korea.

Along with stints as a private consultant to internationally-minded businesses, she also served on the PyeongChang 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games Organizing Committee, as well as the World Expo Yeosu 2012 Organizing Committee.


Jackson now resides in Seoul with her husband and their 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. In her free time, she enjoys hiking Namsan Mountain, exploring Seoul and taking in the local restaurant fare, as well as learning the local lingo. “My whole family is learning Korean,” says Jackson. “My kids are now practicing in Korean shops and with Korean taxi drivers.”

Ms. Jackson recently talked to us from her home in Seoul.

AMCHAM has been in Korea for nearly sixty years. What has been the primary focus of the organization and what are some of its accomplishments?

AMCHAM Korea was founded in 1953 with a broad mandate to encourage the development of investment and trade between Korea and the United States. American companies were on the ground assisting Korea in its efforts to rebuild the country after the war, and have been working here in partnership with Korean companies and consumers for many decades since. This is something in which AMCHAM and its members take great pride.

Our primary focus today is on representing the ideas, opinions, and concerns of our members to both the Korean and American governments. This includes providing input on how the United States and Korea can achieve their goals of promoting investment and trade between the two countries, growing jobs, and promoting a fairer and more transparent business environment.

In Korea, forming mutually-beneficial relationships and trust are important if you are looking for long-term success. As with any other foreign market, efforts to understand the Korean market and culture are needed.

AMCHAM has had many important successes in recent years that are of mutual benefit to the United States and Korea. AMCHAM was instrumental in Korea’s inclusion in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program in 2008.

Another significant achievement for us was the establishment of our charitable foundation called the Partners for the Future Foundation. This organization was founded in 2000 to help Korean students from unemployed families in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis. The Foundation has since raised over $10 million and funded scholarships for more than 1,700 Korean students to attend local universities.

Last but not least, AMCHAM was at the forefront of the effort to get a bilateral Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (“KORUS FTA”) launched, negotiated, and passed by the legislatures of both countries. We anxiously await the implementation of the historic KORUS FTA and are committed to working to ensure that the benefits of this agreement are fully realized by both U.S. and Korean large and small companies, consumers, and workers.

Korea has traditionally had a protected economy, which allowed its domestic business to grow and thrive. What are some of the fears in the Korean business community regarding free trade agreements with much larger economies such as the U.S., the EU and potentially Japan? What are the advantages for Korea in opening their economy up to the world?

The Korean economy has been growing and changing rapidly over the last several years. Korea companies are now global leaders in the auto, shipbuilding and IT sectors, and Korean companies are increasingly willing and able to compete with foreign companies in their own market and globally. Further, Korea’s economy relies heavily on exports (and notably, Korea’s two-way trade surpassed the $1 trillion mark in 2011), so Korea’s ambitious free trade agenda is important for Korea’s future economic growth. Korean society, on the whole, strongly supports this free trade agenda because they understand it will help create new export opportunities, provide new jobs, and also lower import prices at a time when inflation is of growing concern.

Korean policymakers have advocated for more FTA’s by noting that these agreements will encourage more competition and spur greater productivity and innovation by Korean companies, workers and farmers. The KORUS FTA, for example, calls for improvements in regulatory transparency and more consistency and predictability in the market that will encourage more competition, and give both domestic and foreign firms greater security in planning their business strategies and pursuing new investments in the Korean economy. This will benefit the business community and consumers alike, as well as attract more foreign investment into the nation.

There has been a lot of focus over the last year on Korean small and medium-sized enterprises’ (SME’s). Korean SME’s also stand to gain from the KORUS FTA. In a recent interview the Chairman of the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Business (Kbiz), Kim Ki-moon, stated that the KORUS FTA will not only increase Korean SME exports to the U.S, but also expand opportunities for Korea’s SME’s to form partnerships with U.S. companies, allowing technology transfer and more foreign direct investment into the Korean economy.

That said, no free trade agreement can benefit every citizen in any country. In Korea, there are concerns that the agricultural sector could be harmed because of Korea’s FTA’s. But the Korean government, like the U.S. government, has introduced various policies to help ameliorate any negative effects of its FTA’s and to assist farmers and companies as the Korean market opens. I have recently read about how some of Korea’s local provinces are planning to use FTA’s to promote their local products in foreign markets for the first time. Such initiative show that even the agriculture sector can gain by becoming more globally competitive and finding new markets overseas.

The Korean business community is dominated by men, more so than any other country in the G20. As a woman heading the American Chamber of Commerce here, what has been your experience working in such a male-dominated business culture? Have you seen many changes in your time here in Korea?

Compared to ten years ago, I have seen more female representatives in the Korean public and private sectors, so I think the male-dominated business culture here is changing. There are so many well-educated and talented women in the work force here! AMCHAM is proud that U.S. companies have been a favored place to work for Korean woman, as our companies have been leaders in providing Korean women with excellent opportunities for growth and advancement. Examples abound. FedEx Korea is led by an outstanding female Korean leader, Chae Eun-mi. Pfizer Korea has been in the news recently for promoting one of its local female executives to a management position in its New York headquarters. In 2011, more than 19 percent of those promoted in GM Korea were women, which is a record for the automaker. GM Korea now has about 900 female employees, more than tripling the number in 2002.

The Korean government has implemented various policies to create a level playing field for women in the workforce, but I think one of the biggest challenges here is societal attitudes toward working women. One of these (which is, indeed, found in many places in the world) is the expectation that working women should work all day and then go home and do all the cooking, cleaning, and childcare. This attitude is one that must change for working women here to be successful.

A number of Korean working women have confided in me that they think they may have to give up their careers because they cannot balance “work” work and “home” work. Some have said that they do not want to have children because having a child will mean they have to give up their careers. It is clearly in Korea’s interest to pave the way forward for all the bright and talented Korean women who aspire to have a career and a family -– and one of the key steps to reach that goal would be to change Korean societal views on women and their “jobs.”

The world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, sold its sixteen Korean locations, packed up and went home, citing a difficulty in penetrating the local market. If a leviathan like Wal-Mart can fail here, it might very well make other businesses weary of expanding into the Korean market. What advice would you give to businesses that are considering expanding here on the peninsula?

There are many reasons for Wal-mart’s departure from the Korean market. What is more indicative of the vast business opportunities in the Korean market are the growing number of foreign companies that are entering, expanding, and thriving in the Korean market. Costco, for example, is doing very well in Korea. Indeed, its Yangjae store has the highest sales per square meter of any Costco in the world.

In Korea, forming mutually-beneficial relationships and trust are important if you are looking for long-term success. As with any other foreign market, efforts to understand the Korean market and culture are needed. Korea is also a fast-paced country (bballi-bballi culture!) with rapidly changing market conditions, so quick decision making is also important. For U.S. companies interested in entering the market, we advise them to take time to learn about the local population, network with U.S. firms already doing business here to get as much insight and connections possible, and be sure to take advantage of all the resources that are available to help them succeed in the Korean market.

There are a number of AMCHAM members who can provide valuable advice and know-how for companies interested in investing/expanding in Korea. Further, the Commercial service at the U.S. Embassy, as well as several Korean government organizations such as Invest Korea (KOTRA) also provide various kinds of support to U.S. companies investing here.

The business culture in America and Korea are often cited as being quite different. What are some of the most common difficulties that American-run businesses have doing business here? What are some of the advantages and benefits?

One of the key complaints of foreign companies doing business in Korea is the lack of regulatory transparency. Too often, new rules that affect foreign firms’ ability to do business are enacted in Korea without sufficient notice, or involvement of the foreign business community. It is essential that the government make greater efforts to ensure that new policies and changes to existing policies are developed and implemented in a way that allows all stakeholders, both domestic and foreign, a chance to provide meaningful input into the process.

In addition, there are still areas in which Korea is creating and/or adopting new standards that are unique to Korea. This can make it difficult for foreign companies to do business here. Having to dedicate one production line for the Korean market and a separate production line for the rest of the world is not cost efficient for foreign or domestic companies. Korea has been moving more toward the use of international standards over the last few years, and we hope this trend will continue.

For more info on the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, visit their website at

This interview originally ran in Haps Magazine.

Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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