Thursday, November 29, 2007

The DMZ as Digital Divide

Satellite Photo of Korean Peninsula at Night--Symbol of the Digital Divide
On July 4, 1968 I stood in a reception line at the State Department in Washington, D.C. and shook the hand of then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk. I was a summer intern with the United States Information Agency (USIA) and we had all been invited to a diplomatic reception to celebrate the holiday and watch the fireworks display over the Washington Mall. The Vietnam War was raging and, upon meeting him, I identified Rusk only with the Lyndon Johnson administration and our involvement in Vietnam.
It was only three years later when I arrived in Korea that it occurred to me that I shook hands in 1968 with one of the two men who, in a hasty meeting after World War II, decided to divide Korea at the 38th parallel. It was Rusk who, along with Colonel Charles Bonesteel, decided to provisionally establish that dividing line between the North, which the Soviet Union would occupy and the southern U.S. zone which the US would enter. The Cold War later solidified that division into the tense military confrontation at the demilitarized zone or DMZ.
From the time I shook Dean Rusk's hand in 1968, right up to the present, the DMZ has been understood by the world and portrayed by its media as a potential military flash point and a prominent vestige of the Cold War. That portrayal underlies the appeal of the DMZ tours that have proven so popular with visitors to Korea over the past several decades.
From this point in cyberspace (or "in this blog"), I will make the argument that understanding Korea's DMZ in military or Cold War terms is an anachronism. In point of fact, the major historical significance of the DMZ is now as the world's most prominent digital divide. It divides the world's most highly networked (both wired and wireless) nation from arguably the least networked country--keeping in mind that Korea is actually a single nation, although tragically divided. The photograph above captures the lack of electric power in the North versus the South, but it mirrors dramatic differences in every measure of a modern economy. South Korea has become one of the world's leading economies, primarily through progress in information and communication technologies. That fact alone has much to do with its future, both in terms of national reunification and Korea's future role in the region and the world. More on this topic in future posts.

Some Thoughts on Telecommunications Service in Korea and the U.S.

In November of 2003 my wife and I purchased a small plot of land in a small town located in the mountains of Kangwon Province at an elevation of about 2,000 feet. Exactly how and why we did that is the subject of another post. It is situated alongside an expressway and we can drive there in just under two hours via either the expressway or a major national highway (providing that we avoid the massive exodus from Seoul and the same vehicle's return which now characterizes most weekends here). Our location in the mountains is considered rural, and although it bustles somewhat during ski season, it can be described as a quiet little town most of the year.
Korea Telecom Serviceman Installing DSL Service during February 2005 Snowfall in rural Kangwon Province
By February of 2004, despite some snow and frigid winter weather, we had placed a small container house on the property so that we could utilize it as a weekend getaway. The small house was cozy enough, but we wanted to install internet service. So, on a Thursday one week in February, my wife called Korea Telecom and made an appointment for them to come and install ADSL service on Saturday of that week. As it turned out, it was snowing rather heavily when we arrived at our place on Saturday and the young KT service representative actually asked my wife by phone whether we could postpone the installation of their Megapass ADSL service. However, she explained that we were only there on weekends and wanted it installed according to our agreement. As the photo to the left testifies, we did get the service connected that day! The experience says volumes, not only about service in Korea today, but about how the Korean experiences of the 1960s, 70s and especially the "revolution" of the 1980s helped shape the information society they are building today.
P.S. As I recall, when my family and I moved to Boulder Colorado, U.S.A. in 1994, we waited more than two weeks to have basic telephone service installed!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

In Korea, A Boot Camp Cure for Web Obsession

An article in the New York Times on "A Boot Camp Cure for Web Obsession" has caught the imagination of readers and blogs around the globe. This is an excellent example of the sort of new attention Korea is garnering based on the universal availability here of broadband internet and its social effects, especially on the younger generations. Based on my personal perusal of the news coverage (including blogs) generated by this article, I offer the following observations.
  • Many of the accounts are a bit ahistorical, implying that the Korean government only began paying attention to the problem of internet addiction in 2002.
  • They illustrate a sort of "internet effect" on news, created by the reality that the internet itself seemse to be a primary source for many of the stories. The story builds upon itself.
  • Quite a few of the stories challenge the notion of "internet addiction" or "web obsession" and point out the lack of evidence for it in the New York Times story.
I may look into this in more detail over the coming weekend and would welcome your thoughts on the topic.

My Interest in Korea's Information Society: II

In his classic 1950s study of American perceptions of China and India Scratches on our Minds, Harold Isaacs noted that "Vagueness about Asia has been until now the natural condition even of the educated American." His study was motivated by the apparent tendency of Americans, including policymakers, to view the world with emphasis on Europe, despite the obvious importance of Asia in America's emergence as a major world power. As I have written elsewhere, Korea illustrates the persistence of such tendencies. After living in Korea for two years as a young (early twenties) Peace Corps Volunteer, the lack of attention to Korea by the mainstream U.S. media became a matter of concern. When I began researching television coverage of international affairs for my doctoral dissertation at Stanford in the late 1970s it became clear that Korea's status in the American media was similar to that of many other developing nations. It appeared in the news only when there was a crisis to discuss. Other than that it was hardly covered at all. These empirical findings are all documented in my book, Television's Window on the World. Even in May of 1980, when the Kwangju uprising shook Korean politics to its core, the American television networks and other mass media devoted only a minimal amount of attention to Korea. (See my "Quiet Diplomacy in a Television Era: The Media and U.S. Policy Toward The Republic of Korea") They were preoccupied, as was the U.S. government, with the long, drawn out Iran hostage crisis. The Kwangju story never led a network television newscast. The State Department in Washington and the White House under Jimmy Carter never held a press conference. As a result, the television networks and the other major media didn't have the incentive of a press briefing in Washington D.C. to cover the Kwangju uprising. Over a decade later, in the early 1990's, I began to conduct research on the remarkable changes in Korean telecommunications during the 1980s. They constituted a truly amazing transformation, yet they did not attract the international attention they deserved until much later, after Korea itself had become an active member of both the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Even in the late 1990s and the early years of this century, the media seemed to have great difficulty in reporting South Korea's world leadership in broadband internet infrastructure and usage. I attribute this lag in international recognition of South Korea's accomplishments to the general patterns of coverage that were well-established over the years in television and the mainstream press. Although South Korea is now receiving well-deserved press attention, much of that is because of North Korea's nuclear weapons development, the six-party talks and related topics. The information revolution and the new information society evolving on the Korean peninsula, although attracting attention, are hardly given their due. Nor, for that matter, is the importance of the digital divide in Korea. The Korean peninsula, which was divided as a vestige of the Cold War, is now the world's most poignant and extreme example of a digital and communications divide. Vagueness and misunderstanding of Korea persist in the United States and other parts of the world. One purpose of this blog will be to call attention to that phenomenon and to add context and clarity whenever possible.

Monday, November 19, 2007

My Interest in Korea's Information Society: 1

I first set foot on Korean soil in February of 1971, arriving at Kimpo Airport in Seoul as an American Peace Corps Volunteer. Our group, designated as K-16, came to teach English at universities and colleges around the country. I was assigned to the English Education Department of Kangwon National University in Chuncheon. Among the many things I learned in two years of life in Korea was that telephone service and telecommunications in general were primitive. Simply making a long-distance call to Seoul required a walk from the building housing English Education to the main administration building, where we would be permitted to use a black telephone in a certain Dean’s office. During my two years with the Peace Corps I heard so many Koreans shouting into telephone receivers that I initially thought it was a cultural trait, rather than the result of such poor voice quality over the existing lines. All of this would soon change. During the 1980s Korea achieved a revolution in telecommunications that caught the attention of the industry worldwide and forever changed the quality of life for South Korea’s citizens. The story of that revolution became the subject of my book, The Telecommunications Revolution in Korea, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1995. I have been intensely interested in Korea’s subsequent efforts to build an information society which have thrust it into a leading role internationally and at the same time have rendered my book an historical document. Therefore, I am now working on a second edition with the ambitious goal of trying to provide a faithful and comprehensive account of recent developments in South Korea. For information on my background you may consult my personal website, which is basically an electronic resume. For my thoughts on Korea’s telecommunications industry and its rapidly advancing information society, check this blog on an occasional basis.