The current South Korean regulations that make it impossible for smartphone users to utilize all the features of Google Maps in South Korea were written for an earlier, industrial era and may even be a product of the long Cold War. While the Cold War came to an end around most of the world, it tragically lingers here on the Korean peninsula in the form of national division and the continuing military confrontation at the DMZ. However, thanks to the digital information revolution, smart phone users from all over the world are rapidly adopting a variety of mobile, cloud-based services, one of which is Google maps. In a pioneering effort that sheds valuable light on a country little known to the outside world, Google has even published a crowd-sourced map of North Korea. As Jayanth Mysore,Senior Product Manager for Google Map Maker wrote on the Google Maps blog "The goal of Google Maps is to provide people with the most comprehensive, accurate, and easy-to-use modern map of the world." A community of citizen cartographers built the map of North Korea over a few years and it was published in January 2013.
Ironically, citizens of South Korea, despite having access to the world's fastest and most advanced mobile communication networks, cannot utilize the advanced features of Google Maps to get around, find places and otherwise utilize location based services. Why? As reported by The New York Times in October, "Travelers who want to go from Gimpo International Airport to the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul cannot rely on Google Maps. Google Maps can provide directions only for public transport, not for driving, to any place in Korea. Anyone crazy enough to try the journey on bicycle or on foot, directions for which Google Maps provides elsewhere, will be similarly stymied."
The article further notes that "South Korean security restrictions that were put in place after the Korean War limit Google’s maps, the company says. The export of map data is barred, ostensibly to prevent it from falling into the hands of South Korea’s foe to the north, across the world’s most heavily fortified border. Google and other foreign Internet companies say the rule also prevents them from providing online mapping services, like navigation, that travelers have come to rely on in much of the rest of the world."
Earlier this year the Park Geun-hye administration announced plans to ease some of the internet regulations that affect Google Maps and other online mapping initiatives. However, according to a recent report in The Korea Times, that is moving along slowly.
What lawmakers and policymakers in South Korea need to realize is how much harm is already and prospectively done to its economy by the use of regulations that, while well suited to an earlier era, appear anachronistic today. In less than two months, the Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi and they are being billed as the first "bring your own device" Olympics, with an unprecedented investment in mobile communications infrastructure. At the closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics the torch will be handed over to representatives of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics and over the ensuing four years world attention will increasingly be focused on South Korea as the host. The number of international visitors to Korea will increase as the 2018 Games approach, and most of these people will be carrying smart phones with the expectation that the most advanced features of those phones, to which they've become accustomed, will work. The time to update internet regulations to avoid embarrassment is now.