Wednesday, February 27, 2008

More thoughts on growth engines: Military Technology

An article appeared in the English Chosun Ilbo today with the headline "Soldiers to get High Tech Combat Uniforms." If ever there was need for a reminder that the mainstream media around the globe have mis-placed their emphasis, this is it. The mainstream media would have us believe that North Korea's nuclear development and the associates Six-Party Talks are the major problem here. All the while, these same media report only in passing that South Korea has now become a technology and innovation driven, advanced economy, with military technology that far exceeds any capabilities in the North.
The article includes the following passage: "Soldiers of the future operating in winter will wear cold-weather clothing equipped with temperature-adjusting mechanisms. Their color-shifting uniforms will use digital camouflage patterns that mimic their surroundings, be it rocks or trees. Their bulletproof helmets will be outfitted with global positioning systems (GPS), image-transmitting devices and long-distance communications equipment. Previously imaginable only in sci-fi movies, this kind of high-tech gear will be supplied to South Korea's servicemen by 2020. "
Given South Korea's track record in high technology, this is a reasonable goal and will probably be realized. Contrast that with the state of nuclear weapons technology in the North.
The very thought of military technology as an export growth engine makes me think of my father, who was a great fan of President Dwight Eisenhower. In the 1952 U.S. presidential campaign, Eisenhower campaigned by saying "I will go to Korea," to end an unpopular war here. Near the end of his two-term presidency, he gave a now-famous speech warning against the unchecked growth of the "military-industrial" complex. President Eisenhower said:
"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. "
Today, the pressing issue in Korea is the digital divide, which can also be characterized as a technology gap. This needs to be addressed and solved so that the country, so tragically divided after World War II, can be reunited and move ahead. Technologically and economically speaking, there are many growth engines other than military technology and one might hope that the two Koreas will agree on future emphases other than the military one.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

South Korea's International Patent Filings Continue Growth

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, 2007 saw a record number of international patent applications, a total of 156,100. South Korea ranked fourth in the world, behind the United States, Japan and Germany, as shown in the accompanying graphic (click to enlarge). Korea and China were the leading sources of patent filings in Northeast Asia and their rate of growth in patent applications from 2006 to 2007 was much higher than other countries around the world. “The growth in patent filings by a number of countries in north east Asia and their share of overall patenting activity is impressive and confirms shifting patterns of innovation around the world,” said Dr. Kamil Idris, Director General of WIPO. He further noted that “Strategic use of the patent system is a business imperative in today’s knowledge-driven economy. The success of the PCT is largely due to the sustained use of the system by some of the world’s foremost innovation-based companies.” The largest proportion of these applications published in 2007 related to the telecommunications (10.5%), information technology (10.1%) and pharmaceuticals (9.3%) sectors. The fastest growing technology areas are nuclear engineering (24.5% increase) and telecommunications (15.5%). The list of the world's top fifty organizations applying for patents included LG Electronics (13th) and Samsung Electronics (20th), LG Chemical (36th) and the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI) (41st).

Monday, February 25, 2008

Some Thoughts on Growth Engines: Telecommunications and Shipbuilding

One of my Google alerts produced an item from the Electronic Times Newspaper 전자신문 that caught my eye. The headline was "Add IT to Shipbuilding." This prompts me to expand on a thought that has been recurring lately, as commentators note the need for Korea to find new growth engines to support future expansion of the economy. I would argue that electronics and information technology is THE fundamental growth engine, not only for South Korea but for all modern economies. In a broader sense, as Wilbur Schramm, a founding father of the field of communication research as a social science, once noted, "communication is the fundamental social process." On the technology side of communications, as a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times put it, "If innovation has a heart, it’s probably a semiconductor, beating to the pace of Moore’s Law." That article goes on to describe how, using nanotechnology, IBM has developed self-assembly techniques that may prolong the life of Moore's law (the prediction that the number of transistors that can be placed on a single chip approximately doubles every 18 months--see graph, courtesy of The Economist). The telecommunications revolution in South Korea, which began in the 1980s, will likely continue for the foreseeable future, driven primarily by developments in information technology. These IT developments will, in turn, provide the basis for advancements in many fields, including nanotechnology, biotechnology, space research, construction, transportation and yes, shipbuilding. The recent report on shipbuilding notes that Korea's world-leading status is threatened because it is sandwiched between China,competitive in price, and European shipbuilders, who lead in the construction of high-value added ships. The solution? Shin Jung-hoon, CEO of Cadwin System, a shipbuilding architecture software developer, said, “Although it is a hefty industry, the shipbuilding industry takes a while to adopt new software. (Korea) is even slower than China, Japan and even Vietnam in introducing new software.” The same article noted that the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI) had signed an MOU with the Ulsan city government, the Ulsan University and Hyundai Heavy Industry to cooperate in the IT based development of shipbuilding business. In November of 2007, the inter-Korean prime ministers' meeting agreed to begin construction of a shipbuilding factory in Anbyeon in the first half of 2008 and to modernize a ship repair factory in Nampo as soon as possible. Not surprisingly, telecommunications was one of the three main agenda items that North and South Korea discussed to further these joint efforts. And so, the telecommunications revolution in Korea continues to unfold.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Korea Game Science High School

In my regular morning review of technology news in Korea I just learned about the Korea Game Science High School. Founded in 2004, it is located in North Cholla Province. The very existence of this high school is a good indicator of how much the field of computer gaming has developed in South Korea. The goal of education at this high school is to "Provide students with the creative atmosphere and education he or she needs professionally to compete in the growing, global industry of computer gaming." During the first year of instruction, students must meet national educational standards. Thereafter, they pursue a specialized area of development that suits their aptitude. According to the school's English website banner, "the purpose of the school is to train internationally known gamers and instill them with dreams and hopes."
Major subjects taught at the High School include game planning, game programming, game graphics, and e-sports. " E-sports is a new and developing culture which includes pro gamers, game commentators and broadcasting. Currently in Korea, pro gaming, game contests and leagues are all called E-sports."
I wonder how many other countries, if any, have high schools devoted to this emerging industry.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Education, English, and Korea's Knowlege Economy

Although I have adopted the information society rubric for this blog, it should be clear that education is a big part of the picture. Technology development is certainly an important part of information society development, but today's technological innovations could hardly take place without education. In addition, education is the source of most of the research and ideas that become the content flowing over modern networks. Furthermore, as the world becomes more closely knit together through transportation and communication, the globalization process seems to inexorably give more weight to foreign-language education, especially the learning of English. It is difficult to imagine that any other country in the world makes a greater overall investment in education than South Korea. Given its Confucian cultural heritage, there is a natural tendency here to respect and value scholarship, learning and testing. Hard data show that the nation invests more money in education, publicly and privately, than almost any other country. Parents will sacrifice almost anything to give their children the best possible education. Since the election of a new President here, the issue of how to revitalize the South Korean economy has taken center stage. The presidential transition committee has publicly announced many changes that the new administration will introduce, politics permitting. A large number of these have to do with education. For example, the college entrance administration will be revamped to give more discretion to individual universities in admitting students. However, more than education per se, the topic of English education has become a major national policy issue. The new administration proposes to gradually introduce a policy whereby all English classes in public schools are taught in English. It also proposes to strengthen public school English education in order to reduce the huge current expenditures on English training through private institutes or "hagwons." Beyond the expenditures on institute training here, the country also faces a rising services deficit, owing to the number of students going abroad for intensive English study. Future posts will deal with the major issues in education, English education and the overall effort to bolster South Korea's knowledge economy.

Friday, February 8, 2008

North Korea's Moment for Mobile?

  • The announcement last month by Egypt's Orascom Telecom that it had won a 3G license to construct mobile phone networks in North Korea bears close scrutiny. According to press reports, the company's subsidiary CHEO Technology, a joint venture 75 per cent owned by Orascom and 25 per cent owned by North Korea’s state-run Korea Post and Telecommunications, won the right to provide mobile phone services using 3G technology. This announcement was tantalizing news, for several key reasons.
  • First among them is the recent history of North Korea's involvement with mobile communications. When China began building cell-phone relay stations along the North Korean border in 2003, the use of mobile phones with pre-paid cards became a hot black market item in North Korea. Defectors from North Korea have widely reported the use of cell phones to communicate with their families. The response of the North Korean government was an attempt to ban the use of mobile phones, including increased patrols using devices that detect cell-phone signals. Yet, in early 2005 Rebecca MacKinnon speculated in Yale Global Online that cell phone technology was poised to "re-shape the North Korean world view - seen through the Chinese peephole." In 2008, it remains "poised." To date, the North Korean government has shown its fear, politically speaking, of the free flow of information that cellular technology affords.
  • A second reason for interest in Orascom's announcement is that it includes plans to invest more than $400 million in infrastructure over the next three years, providing mobile phone service to North Koreans in all of their major cities. Should this happen, it will be a start toward erasing the world's most egregious digital divide, that between North and South Korea. Such a step is long overdue. However, such modern infrastructure comes with a price, that the leadership of North Korea must certainly understand. Any modern communications, network, particularly if it brings access to the internet, will also aid those who seek democratization.
  • Finally, this announcement raises some interesting questions about China's influence on the modernization of North Korea's communications networks, versus the influence of South Korea. I think there is little question that the Korean language will be dominant within North Korean communications for some time to come. However, it finds itself today sandwiched between China and a lively South Korean democracy in which information flows freely through advanced networks and whose major coporations operate globally. To eventually reunify with the South Korea of "ubiquitous networks," it seems that the North will need to veer away from China's policy of attempting to control the internet toward the manner in which the South has embraced it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Conceptions of Cyberspace and Korea's Vision

As the world moves more fully into the information age, Korea promises to be an important contributor to the shaping of that new environment. One of my goals for this blog and my wordpress blog on Korean telecommunications is to outline Korean ideas about cyberspace and to suggest where they fit in the global scheme of things. In order to consider the internet as a whole and the global picture, the work of Stanford Professor Lawrence Lessig over the past decade is essential background. A good starting point for any serious student of these matters would be to download and read each of his books. (from ) In making these books available for personal use with a simple pdf file download, Professor Lessig is leading the Creative Commons effort by example, and what a fine example it is!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Speed on the Internet: Its Dimensions and Significance

We talk rather frequently these days about the "speed" of our internet connections. Those in the know understand that speed also equals "bandwidth." Therefore, "broadband internet" is better than the narrower bandwidths that preceded it. Speed has several meanings and connotations when applied to the internet.
  • One important meaning is the length of time from when you touch a keyboard button on a PC, mobile phone or PDA, until the device displays your input. For users of the internet, this meaning of speed is very important, and it helps to explain why, once someone has gotten accustomed to fast, broadband internet connections, they're unwilling to go back to slower interaction with the web.
  • Another meaning of speed has to do with bandwidth and how much data can be transmitted per second or other unit of time via different networks. In other words, I can say that I'm connected to the web at 54 Mbps or 100 Mbps. The vast majority of non-technically-inclined people in today's world probably tune out such explanations as irrelevant to their own, day-to-day concerns.
  • In practical, human terms, yet another meaning of speed is how quickly a video segment will load and play on your computer, mobile phone, pda or other device. As with the response to keyboard input, the goal here is instantaneous response.
  • In today's world, another way of thinking about speed is in relation to politics. Universal access to speedy networks equals the possibility for democratic politics and the chance for an information society in which everyone prospers. I'm not suggesting that content and other factors are irrelevant, but equal access to information and equal capability to disseminate information seem to demand speed on the internet and through the world's networks.
  • Speed and virtual reality (aka Cyberspace). It is also the speed, or bandwidth of internet connections that makes possible Cyworld in Korea, Second Life in the U.S. and other world's of virtual reality. Do these worlds have a history, like the real world? If so, how is the history different from and related to the history of the real world we inhabit? Most importantly, how fast is the history evolving? Is it accelerating?
In the final analysis, there can be no doubt that speed is important. The reason I emphasize this point is that some people in the United States, Britain and other countries are still questioning strategy for building-out broadband internet networks that will allow all citizens to access information with blazing speed. Speed matters. It matters a lot. P.S. I'm enjoying the speed access to the internet that living in South Korea affords me! More on this topic in future posts.

Google Launches Korean-Style Web Search

Google has just announced that it will reshape its Web search engine service into a categorized, graphic-rich style that serves the Korean users' taste. This reinforces the basic point made in my earlier post on how language and culture place bounds on web-surfing in South Korea. In redesigning its Korean-language search services, Google is going to attempt to satisfy the preferences of Korean "netizens." I recommend they go all the way and try to introduce features that will provide Korean-language surfers with the information they are searching for. One of the most popular features on Naver is "Knowledge In," where netizens ask questions that are answered by other Korean web surfers. This service has a heavy social-networking, as well as search compontent. But to be clear about the limits, it is Koreans asking other Koreans for answers. This is a very different sort of question than asking Google to search (or more accurately "crawl" ) the entire internet for mentions of a topic. In other news, there are reports that Naver is introducing services to make its "search" of the web appear more comprehensive, like Google's. The development of these two contrasting services and Naver versus Google market share will be most interesting to follow here in Korea.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The ITU's Digital Opportunity Index--Korea Ranks Number One in the World

For the past several years, South Korea has ranked number one in the world on the ITU's Digital Opportunity Index (DOI). For that reason alone it is worth understanding what this index is and what it measures. The index is based on 11 ICT indicators, grouped in 3 clusters: opportunity, infrastructure and utilization, as illustrated in the accompanying graphic (click the graphic for larger version).

Moreover, the DOI is an outgrowth of the World Summit on the Information Society meetings organized by the ITU. Among the dominant concerns at these meetings was the digital divide and the degree to which developing as well as developed nations could achieve digital opportunity. In the Geneva phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, participants decided that, in an ideal world, digital opportunity would mean:

  • The whole population having easy access to ICTs at affordable prices;
  • All homes equipped with ICT devices;
  • All citizens having mobile ICT devices; and
  • Everyone using broadband.

As one can see from a glance at the world map, digital opportunity currently varies greatly from country to country and regionally. A couple of points deserve to be emphasized about South Korea's world-leading ranking on the DOI index. First, the index contains a strong measure of infrastructure. The presence and pervasiveness of an infrastructure, or we might say the ubiquity of a network, is a necessary precondition for the equitable flow of information among all citizens in an information society. Second, the "opportunity" which concerns the ITU is opportunity for all citizens, to access information, not simply the question of whether the new networks contribute to economic growth. Third, this index does not incorporate measures of literacy and education, but the inclusion of such data would in all likelihood bolster South Korea's standing. Fourth and finally, one would hope that somehow an index like DOI could be related to the language in which information is accessed, processed and used. The incoming administration in Seoul argues that English has become the lingua franca and therefore Korea needs to mount a major effort to improve English ability precisely in order to improve productivity. If 90 percent of the information on the internet today is in English, is fluency in that language a pre-requisite to true digital opportunity?