Friday, December 30, 2011

More on North Korea's Digital Dilemma

The Economist has published an excellent piece on "succession in North Korea" that helps to underscore some of the points made in my earlier post.  It notes that there are now hundreds of thousands of mobile-phone users on the regime’s network, with international calls for some. Near the border with China, North Koreans can use Chinese mobile networks to call South Korea, either directly or by paying brokers to put them through. DVDs on sale on the black market show what life in the outside world, especially South Korea, is like.
The Economist notes that "Growing understanding of North Korea’s economic backwardness seems likely to breed hunger for change. It is hard to see how the economy could be modernised without abruptly destroying the state’s paternalistic ruling mythology. Much of the dark interior of North Korea is bereft not only of consumer goods but also of trustworthy information, on anything from prices to politics. Although an increasing number of people, especially in the border areas, are aware of the vast disparity between capitalist South Korea and their own workers’ paradise, defectors say many still do not fully grasp how wide that chasm is. As one defector puts it, explaining why his relatives cling to their belief in the Kim family state when he sends them cash from South Korea: “There is a gap between what you know and what you believe.”
Continuing from the article, "Perhaps the most confounding aspect of North Korea is that, however much it has depended on Chinese investment and Western aid since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the outside world cannot do much to influence its internal dynamics. So deprived are its people of both external and internal sources of information that the regime has been able to assert control. So dependent are they on its favour that North Koreans have become accustomed to policing themselves.  Yet the country that Mr Kim inherits is not as unchanging as it appears. Mobile phones, cross-border profiteering, corruption and inequality have all flourished. The failed currency reforms led to unprecedented public anger."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Samsung Electronics Market Cap and North Korea's GDP

Today the Korea Joongang Daily and other media are reporting that Samsung Electronics has become the fifth most valuable firm among its market peers, according to market capitalization.The total market cap of the world’s second-largest mobile phone maker stood at $136.9 billion as of last Friday, only trailing Apple, Microsoft, IBM and Google, according to the data compiled by local financial sources. Samsung’s market cap surpassed that of Oracle, the world’s No. 2 software firm, by $5.9 billion.
Today also happens to be the day on which North Korea is observing the funeral ceremony for its former leader, Kim Jong Il.  To put the size of Samsung Electronics in some perspective, it is interesting to note that the most recent estimates suggest that North Korea's gross domestic produce in 2010 was just over $26 billion.  In other words, Samsung Electronics has a value over five times that of the North Korean economy.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

South Korea dropping real-name internet ID system

The Korea Times carried a report today about progress in overhauling the online ID system.  Until now, Korea has been one of the few countries in the world to require real-name identification in order to sign up for internet services. The country’s top portals and game companies plan to stop requesting resident registration numbers to subscribe to their sites. They will also delete the registration number data of the users they have. The country took the first step toward this end in the wake of serious privacy infringements and phishing crimes here. Nexon, the top online game company, announced Wednesday that it won’t store the users’ resident registration numbers. It follows the same decision by Naver and Daum, the country’s top portals. NCsoft, another giant online game company and Nate have already announced this course of action. Unlike in other countries, large websites here have demanded people’s resident registration number to be able to sign up. The request stemmed from the real name system on the Internet adopted by the government in July 2007. The easiest way for websites to confirm whether subscribers were using their real names was to request their resident number and see if it matched.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Government efforts to control internet speech in Korea

International media, including The Washington Post have taken notice of efforts by the Korean government to monitor and control speech on the internet, as touched on in a post earlier this month.   The Post article notes that South Korea’s Internet watchdog, the Korea Communications Standards Commission, was created in 2008, empowered to patrol the Web for obscenity, defamation and anything that threatens national security. It’s technically an independent organization, but its nine members are appointed by the president. The article also took note that this week South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling against one of the country’s most popular political commentators, who co-hosts a podcast that criticizes President Lee Myung-bak. The court said Chung Bong-ju, 51, was guilty of spreading rumors about Lee’s connection to an alleged stock fraud. Chung faces a one-year jail term. “In America, it’s almost impossible to prove defamation against a public figure,” Chung said in an recent interview, before the Supreme Court determined his case. “Here it’s easy. . . . When people open their mouths now, they are regulated.”

How DPRK websites broke the news of Kim Jong Il's death

Martyn Williams at North Korea Tech has an interesting piece, complete with screen captures, on how official DPRK web sites conveyed the story of Kim Jong Il's death.  Quite a contrast to North Korean television.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Kim Jong Il's death and North Korea's digital dilemma

The media are beginning to pay attention to a topic that has been a recurrent theme of this blog over the years, the implication for the future and for Korean reunification of the yawning and increasing digital divide on the Korean peninsula.  These days, a digital divide correlates also with an economic divide, at least if a nation like North Korea ever hopes to have a modern economy.  Interestingly, it also correlates with military capability in the sense that ICT is now integrated with most all modern weapons systems and has become a defining factor in modern warfare.  An article in Forbes explores how the "Death of Kim Jong Il Highlights North Korean Tech Famine."  Also worth reading is the Forbes piece on "Creating Bridges into North Korea."
John Walcott, writing for Bloomberg, explores why North Korea is a "hard target" which poses a great challenge for U.S. and other outside intelligence services.  His article notes that A simple fact is at the heart of the intelligence challenge posed by North Korea, David S. Maxwell, the associate director of the Security Studies program at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an interview. “What makes it hard for us to penetrate is the same control of information that keeps the regime in power,” he said. North Korea relies on an 11-year-old network of underground fiber-optic cables that’s harder for outsiders to tap -- and easier for the authorities to monitor -- than are cell phones, satellite communications or the Internet. In a telling point, the Bloomberg article notes that technology may finally turn the tide, as it’s doing elsewhere, by forcing even North Korea to change, even if not to abandon its reclusive and repressive ways. Barbro Elm, the Swedish ambassador to North Korea, recently reported that she had taken a trip from Pyongyang to three other cities and had strong domestic cell phone service the entire way. She had international service only when she was near the Chinese border and could connect to Chinese towers. I believe that technology has already begun to have its impact on North Korea,which faces a stark dilemma. It can either adopt and use the new mobile broadband and digital technologies, thereby developing its economy and nation, or it can seek to control and limit their use, a choice that will also necessarily limit the nation's economic and social development.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Media on the death of Kim Jong Il: National Unification

Another striking aspect of the first hours and days of international media coverage of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is the relative lack of attention to Korea's division, or put the other way, the problem or challenge of national reunification.  After all, in the broad sweep of history, Korea's division is an aberration that has only lasted a bit over half a century for a nation whose history stretches back thousands of years.  Most of the media references to division go back only to the Korean war and use the old cold war perspective to explain how Korea was divided and the implications thereof.
Most Koreans instinctively understand that national division is a fundamental problem and that unification is necessary to solve this quintessential political problem in Northeast Asia.  That is why South Korea maintains a government ministry devoted to unification.  However, as an article in Foreign Policy suggests, many South Koreans, especially its youth, are not all that enthusiastic about unification with North Korea.  I believe that the author of this article pushes the point too far in one sentence where he claims that "Despite the fear that a hostile nuclear-armed state without a clear leader in charge could instill in its neighbors, most South Koreans here really just don't seem to care about what happens in the North."

More on media coverage of Kim Jong Il's death

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, Yonhap News has published two interesting items.  The first of these reports that South Korea's military raised its cyber alert level immediately following Kim Jong Il's death. In a report submitted to the National Assembly, the ministry said the South's information operations condition, or Infocon, was raised from Level 5 to Level 4 on Monday, after the North announced Kim's death.In the five-stage Infocon, Level 5 is in place during peacetime, and Level 4 indicates an increased risk of cyber attack. Only the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can raise Infocon.
Another Yonhap report noted that both South Korea's intelligence chief and its defense minister learned of Kim's death from North Korea's media.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Death of Kim Jong Il: International News in the Information Age

My wife and I returned to our apartment in southern Seoul less than four hours ago when we first learned about the death of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il.  My wife first learned of this from an internet web site.  I was also logging on to check e-mail and do some work, so I quickly went to some news sites, all of which were reporting the death.  My next instinct was to turn on the television, and I've alternated watching BBC World and CNN International for most of the past three hours.
I've long been interested in the international flow of news, the role of technology in flow of news, and its impact on international relations and foreign policy.   The past few hours, as I've experienced, yield several insights as follows.

  • North Korea waited more than two days before reporting Kim's death to its own citizens and the world through the government's official broadcaster.  The obvious questions of why and what happened during these two days have received some attention in news reports but will deserve much further analysis.  Reuters referred to the delay in reporting Kim's death with the headline "Information black hole as North Korean leader dies"
  • Initial reports from both CNN and the BBC originated from everywhere but Korea.   Both correspondents relied on their reporters in Beijing, and in London, Washington, D.C.
  • Both CNN and the BBC showed video of the woman anchor tearfully announcing Kim Jong Il's death on North Korean television.
  • There was heavy use of split screen or voice-over file video of Kim Jong Il and North Korea.
  • Both news organizations also turned quickly to university and research institute based North Korea experts in London, Washington and in Seoul.  The experts from Seoul initially included professors from Yonsei University, Ehwa Womans University and Han Sung Joo, former South Korean ambassador to the U.S.  Undoubtedly the time difference between Korea and the New York-Washington D.C. area explained the absence of a dozen or more well-recognized "Korea experts" in the network commentaries.
  • The initial hours of coverage also brought in short segments with other correspondents who had visited North Korea or reported from there.  One of these was by former CNN correspondent Mike Chinoy.
  • Both news organizations aired a number of reports that were retrospective, obituary-style reviews of the life and career of Kim Jong Il, most obviously pre-recorded, probably months ago.
Interestingly, in this era of the "Arab Spring," the first four hours or so of coverage by these two leading news organizations did not connect much at all with internet or social networking activity.   Comments on the implications of this and the above patterns are welcome.

Entrepreneurship and SMEs in Korea: An Update

It is widely known that Korea's large chaebol industries have led its economic development over many decades now.  What is less widely known is that certain key leaders in the nation's government and private sector have long favored entrepreneurship and have advocated the role of venture capital in encouraging new business.  Those who are following current developments in this area will want to read this article in The Financial Times outlining current government and big business efforts to encourage entrepreneurship.

Samsung Supplies Apple with Chips from its New Austin TX Fab

As noted in earlier posts, (for example, this one) the most valuable components of Apple's iPhones and tablet devices are being supplied by South Korean companies, led by Samsung and LG.  There is currently another wave of publicity circulating in media and on the internet about Samsung's role in supplying the key chips for Apple's tablet devices.  This role as a supplier is pretty hard to hide since the newest chips are being manufactured in a large--think nine football fields--new Samsung fab in Austin Texas.    Forbes has an interesting short account of these developments.  Among other things, it notes that despite the impressive size of the fab and the number of chips it will turn out, the Samsung facility will employ only about 1,100 people.
The article notes, in response to the frequent argument in the U.S. that "we must revive manufacturing," that manufacturing seems to come in two kinds at the moment. Lots of jobs but very low wages assembly work, the stuff that is done in China. Or very few jobs indeed high tech stuff. Which is nice, sure, but it just doesn’t employ tens of millions of people, not even tens of thousands.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Privacy Issue in Korean Social Networking

Despite the fact that Cyworld became wildly popular in Korea a full half decade before Facebook was even invented in the United States, Korean cultural norms and laws with respect to privacy are dramatically different than those in the United States.  As reported in The Korea Times, these differences are receiving increased attention with the rapidly increasing popularity of Facebook and Twitter here in Korea, especially since the introduction of the iPhone in late 2009.  The accompanying graphic (click to see a full-size version) shows that younger people are the leading users of Facebook, even though it is attracting Korean users in all age demographics.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Korean Military to Deploy Smartphones on Battlefield

As reported by The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's Defense Ministry is looking into ways to use smartphones on the battlefield starting as early as 2013. The military presently limits smartphones for personal use due to their vulnerability to hacking and eavesdropping. This development is both interesting and inevitable. Information and intelligence have historically played an important role in warfare, but their importance has taken a quantum leap with the digital information revolution. U.S. military, for example, have long used these devices in war zones.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Internet Monitoring and Filtering in South Korea

It has been some time since we've posted anything on efforts by the South Korean government to monitor or filter contents on the internet.  Last week this topic came to the fore again, receiving international publicity, when the Korea Communications Standards Commission announced that it would expand a team that monitors Facebook and Twitter posts for violation of rules.  The Commission defines illegal content as including comments or postings that involve pornography, gambling, drug abuse, the spread of false information and anything that incites or promotes crime. It also includes national security. According to police, as reported by the Chosun Ilbo, more pro-North Korean websites run on servers based overseas out of South Korean jurisdiction. The number of overseas-based pro-North websites detected by police rose from 73 in 2007 to 127 this year. Some 53 of them were based on servers in the United States, 29 in Japan, 19 in China, and 5 in North Korea.

Friday, December 2, 2011

SKT Maps Patterns of Mobile Data Usage in Korea

As reported today in The Joongang Daily, SK Telecom has concluded a study that maps the usage of mobile data services in Korea's cities and provinces. The SK Telecom analysis of data usage of its 26.5 million mobile users by region is Korea’s first data usage map. As shown in the accompanying graphic (click to see a full-size version)Seoul, whose land accounts for less than one percent of Korea, was responsible for more than 22.3 percent of the country’s data traffic. The survey also showed that, within Seoul, the data-rich and data-poor areas were evident. Looking at the entire country, Seoul and nearby metropolitan areas - namely, Gyeonggi and Incheon - accounted for almost half of the data usage at 49.7 percent.