Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Where's the Beef?" Information Age Politics in Korea

The candlelight vigil demonstrations against the Lee Myung Bak government's decision to allow importing of American beef began on May 2, have occurred almost daily since then, and show no signs of abating. As time passes, they seem to involve every conceivable political issue on which the new administration of President Lee Myung Bak might be opposed, reminding me of the famous line from a Wendy's commercial in the mid-1980s, "Where's the Beef?" These powerful political developments in Korea can be better understood if we pay attention to several main features, from a political communication perspective.
  • The new networks are employed to organize and sustain the political movement. These include mainly messaging with mobile phones and the internet.
  • The "six degrees apart" phenomenon allows fast mobilization of large-scale demonstrations, especially in Korea's close-knit culture.
  • The use of digital images, graphics and videos is widespread. At the latest candlelight vigils, not only the candles and cups, but placards carried by participants, seem to have been mass produced digitally for each event.
  • There is an immediate global aspect to the sharing of videos of the demonstrations that feeds the movement, as each night's vigil becomes a promotion for forthcoming demonstrations. The growing number of videos posted to YouTube in recent days illustrates this global dimension.
  • The current flurry of political activity shows a spotlight on the manner in which rumor, half-truths, can be spread via the internet and other modern media. The South Korean press has been full of stories speculating on the origins of some of the rumors and stories circulating on the web and via mobile messaging. Many speculate that the political opposition to Lee Myung Bak's government, or young hackers, and the like are behind the developments.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wireless Broadband Boosts the Economy

A new report by Ovum for CTIA, the Wireless Association concludes that "wireless broadband, is having a massive impact on the productivity of the entire U.S. economy, and in particular is having a significant impact in five key states. Further, we find that small businesses and the health care sector in particular are realizing significant benefits from the implementation and use of wireless broadband." (Click on the graphic at the upper-left to view a full-size image.) Why mention this in a blog about Korea's telecommunications sector? The main reason is that Korea has a potentially huge stake in the buildout of wireless networks around the world by virtue of its WiBro, or mobile Wimax technology. Samsung and Sprint are building Wimax networks along the east coast of the U.S., including New York and Washington D.C. Another reason is that the economic impact of wireless broadband technology in the United States economy is likely to be similar to its impact in other advanced economies, such as South Korea.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Politics, Emotions and Television

Anyone with a bit of experience in Korea will acknowledge that Korean people are passionate. This cultural characteristic is on display in the current political upheaval over importing American beef and the FTA with the United States. If you doubt this, view the following video presentationNot surprisingly, one of the factors that ignited the current wave of political emotion was a documentary on mad cow disease aired by MBC. Some of the television images from that program reminded me of the time, as a high school student, that I toured a Swift Company meat-packing plant in rural South Dakota. Surely, seeing cows slaughtered and cut apart is something that we consumers of pulgogi, ribs or hamburgers seldom think about, and many of the images can be frightening, especially to young people seeing them for the first time. In an earlier post I mentioned the role of instant messaging on mobile phones in Korea's current political upheaval. Equally important is the emotional and visceral impact of graphic visual news on television. To see some of that, look at another video that is circulating widely in South Korea via television and the internet.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Orascom Telecom Reportedly Partners to Complete Ryugyong Hotel Construction

According to Yonhap News, North Korea resumed the construction of a highrise hotel building in Pyongyang last month, which was suspended for nearly 20 years due to funding problems. The construction of the luxury Ryugyong Hotel began in 1987 with French capital and technology for completion in 1992. The 105-story building has long been left uncompleted since early 1990s amid North Korea's chronic economic problems. According to informed sources "North Korean authorities restarted the construction of Ryugyong Hotel in April." Orascom Telecom Holding of Egypt is North Korea's partner for the construction, the sources said. "If completed, the hotel will be used as an accommodation for foreign investors and visitors, a business center and an international convention center among others," a source said. The 330-meter hotel is expected to be the world's tallest when completed.

A New Boom in Undersea Cable Laying

The Economist reports, based on a Telegeography study, that there is a new boom in the laying of undersea fiber optic cable. This one is smaller than the boom that peaked in 2001 when network operators such as Global Crossing spent nearly $13.5 billion laying undersea cables (see graphic). That boom turned to bust. However, according to Alan Mauldin of TeleGeography, the current boom is much more rooted in reality. Above all, demand is now indeed growing fast, driven by video and music traffic. Between 2002 and 2007, worldwide demand for international bandwidth grew at an average rate of 52% a year. Nevertheless, today less than a quarter of the fibre-optic strands on the chief undersea routes have been “lit”, or switched on. The need for bandwidth is not the only reason for laying cable. In addition, network operators need back-up connections and alternative routes in case cables get cut, which often happens.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Koreans Trust the Internet, Blogs as News Sources

More sense can be made of the current political upheaval in South Korea over importing American beef against the backdrop of a 2006 survey conducted in ten countries for the BBC, Reuters and the American Press Institute's Media Center. What made Korea stand out among the ten countries in this study was the degree of trust shown in the internet as a source of news. Approximately 85% of South Koreans asked said they put a high value on accessing news over the internet, a much higher proportion than in other countries. As shown in the graphic to the left, over a third of Koreans named the internet as their most important source of news. Especially amoung young people, there has been a switch from reliance on television as a news source to the internet. This pattern can be seen in all ten of the countries in the survey, but it is most pronounced in Korea. The survey cites the impact of Korea's advanced communications infrastructure, noting that over 86% of households (that percentage is now well over 90 percent) are online. "The supremacy of TV is in danger of being usurped by the internet. A third of Koreans cite the net as their most important source of news, rivalling the 41% who cite TV. It is also one of the most positive countries about blogs, with 38% trusting them compared to the 10-country average of 25%. " The full poll results can be downloaded in PDF format from the BBC and they contain some interesting glimpses of the new communication environment emerging in South Korea. Seventy-one percent of South Koreans think that government interferes too much with the media, a percentage exceeded only in Nigeria (where 74% hold that view). Seventeen percent of South Koreans named blogs as their most important news source, compared with only 3 percent in the other nine countries surveyed.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Haechi" as New Symbol of Seoul?

It is not only the city of Seoul, but South Korea and the Korean peninsula more generally that has an "image problem." I will address this problem in much more detail through posts on this blog, but wanted to share with you the latest effort to address the image problem. In today's Korea times, an article reported that "As corporate identify (CI) is used to upgrade corporate image, the city wants the new symbol to become the city's new icon and contribute to boosting the capital's international image. The Mayor of Seoul is quoted as saying that "Despite the scale and reputation of Seoul, we don't have any representative symbol. We've selected Haechi as the symbol and we hope it will promote the city internationally.'' The Mayor wants Haechi to become like the Big Apple of New York, Merloin in Singarpore and Buddy Bear of Berlin. The city made the selection after six months of preparation, including various surveys and public hearings. Most respondents picked Gyeongbok Palace as a representative icon of the city but the city chose the palace's guardian Haechi for its practical variations along with its historical characteristics." I commend the Mayor and the City of Seoul for recognizing the problem. However, is this how Seoul wants to be represented in the media around the world, let alone cyberspace?

Blackberry in South Korea?

An article in today's Korea Times proclaims "Doors to Blackberry Yanked Open." The article notes that "The government partially lifted its ban on the Canadian-made BlackBerry handsets in time for the visit of the handset maker's chief executive to the OECD Ministerial Meeting to be held in Seoul next month. The ban on BlackBerry has been criticized as a typical example of a non-tariff barrier by foreign businessmen here. BlackBerry is a hybrid mobile phone and palm-sized computer, specialized in e-mailing and personal scheduling. First introduced in 1997, it has become an essential tool for businesspeople around the world because of its ability to receive e-mails real-time. RIM says that there are more than 14 million subscribers in the world. Korea was one of few countries where it was not available, partly because it did not meet a technical specification imposed by the government, which was set up in favor of domestic phone makers such as Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics. In addition, local mobile operators had little incentive to introduce the Blackberry here as the need for mobile e-mailing was not very high, as the country has Internet access on every other corner of the street in the form of Internet cafes and public PCs. " Consult the full article for further details.

Six Degrees of Separation: Politics in the Information Age

The current political phenomenon in Korea, involves a mediated frenzy that is being whipped up with the aid of new information an communication technologies, notably the internet and mobile phones. This suggests to me that South Korea, which has internet and mobile communication infrastructures unequalled in the world, also has certain cultural characteristics that accentuate the political impact of these communication technologies.
One of the interesting findings from research on human communication networks is the so-called "six degrees of separation." It refers to the idea that, if a person is one step away from each person he or she knows and two steps away from each person who is known by one of the people he or she knows, then everyone is an average of six "steps" away from each person on Earth. This idea has its origins in the 1960s experiments of American psychologist Stanley Milgram. The concept has since accumulated an impressive amount of empirical evidence or "proof." One of the more interesting studies "proving" the concept was published in June of 2007, based on data from everyone in the world who used the MSN "instant messaging" service. In a research paper from June 2007, titled "Worldwide Buzz: Planetary-Scale Views on an Instant-Messaging Network (PDF)," Eric Horvitz of Microsoft Research and Jure Leskovec of Carnegie Mellon University analyzed 30 billion conversations among 240 million people using Microsoft Instant Messenger in June 2006. It turned out that the average path length, or degree of separation, among the anonymized users probed was 6.6.
The relevance of this to the current political upheaval in South Korea? Politics here are based on interpersonal communication networks. Family, hometown, school and regional associations are of paramount importance in Korea. Modern communication networks such as the internet and mobile phones amplify the speed and scope of interpersonal communication in part because of "six degrees of separation." This phenomenon has also been dubbed "smart mobs." Middle and high school students use mobile-phone-based instant messaging and internet bulletin boards to share ideas about importation of American beef, and to organize candlelight protests that draw tens of thousands in Seoul and other large Korean cities. Korea's homogeneous culture and the importance of networking with friends and associates seems to be creating a strong new political dynamic in the information age. With only six degrees of separation, information spreads more rapidly through the new digital networks, creating candlelight vigils in which sixty percent or more of the participants were reportedly middle and high school students.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

More on Politics: Crackdown on Madcow Rumors Online

According to an article in today's Joongang Ilbo, prosecutors are beginning a crackdown on madcow rumors online. "Five prosecutors will begin investigating those who create and spread posts, cartoons or video clips containing false facts about mad cow disease and U.S. beef, the prosecutors’ office said. It said the current onslaught against the resumption of U.S. beef imports is more malicious than just Internet posts of critical opinions. They said it is developing into organized attacks on government agencies’ official Web sites." The article further notes that "Scary tales about mad cow disease are sweeping popular Web sites in Korea. Some of the posts claim mad cow disease can spread through soil, air or food and that some countries are set to categorize Korea as a country at risk of mad cow disease and to ban Koreans from entering those nations."

Information Age Politics--Mad Cow Disease and Anti-Americanism

What do the following have in common?
  • A poll shows that 34 percent of first-year South Korean army cadets called the United States the main enemy of South Korea. While the majority ― or 34 percent ― picked the U.S., 33 percent said they regarded North Korea as the main enemy. Korea Times
  • An in-house poll for the governing party in early May found that President Lee's rating has slipped to less than 30 percent, down 10 percentage points from last week. "Beef Deal Pulls Down Lee's Ratings," Korea Times.
  • Education authorities yesterday instructed heads of schools nationwide to take steps to stop groundless rumors over the imports. This came in the wake of candlelight vigils in which an estimated 60 percent of the participants were middle-and high-school students.
  • Reportedly 660,000 people have signed a petition on the web to impeach President Lee Myung Bak.
  • Korean-American organizations in New York, Washington and Los Angeles held press conferences this week in an effort to calm the mad cow scare in Korea.
  • All sorts of rumors regarding mad cow disease are spreading by mobile phone text messaging and via the internet.

All of the above are manifestations of South Korean politics in the information age. The significance of the current political developments has less to do with the Korean government's decision to resume importing American beef, per se, than with other larger concerns and President Lee's recent visit to the U.S. Over and above the symbolism of candlelight vigils, there is a decidedly anti-American message to the current student protests, as one can easily see from visiting a website put up to help mobilize the protests.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Measuring the Information Society: Korea's Broadband Network Ranks Number 1

A headline in the People's Daily Online caught my attention today. It read "South Korea's Broadband Network Most Developed." As with media coverage elsewhere in the world, this headline derived from a report issued by the International Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, an IT think-tank established in the United States in 2006. The mission of this think tank is to ". . . formulate and promote public policies to advance technological innovation and productivity internationally, in Washington, and in the states. Recognizing the vital role of technology in ensuring American prosperity, ITIF focuses on innovation, productivity, and digital economy issues."
In its report "Explaining International Broadband Leadership," ITIF released rankings that are based on three measures: broadband penetration, speed and price. This ranking places Korea solidly in first place, with Japan coming in second, and the United States ranking 12th. More interesting than the rankings per se is the analysis in the longer report of why countries rank as they do. For example, the report notes that because " . . . over 50 percent of South Koreans live in large, multitenant apartment buildings makes it significantly cheaper on a per-subscriber basis to roll out fast broadband there compared to the United States, where many people live in single-family suburban homes." With reference to Korea and the other leading broadband nations, the report notes that leadership, incentives, competition and demand-side policies are all important.