Business Korea joined up with the Asia Institute to hold the first in a series of Breakfast Seminars recently that gather together thought leaders in Korea’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) scene to discuss an issue weighing on the mind of many in the industry: how to unleash Korea’s ICT potential. In attendance were five noted members of the public, academic, and private ICT sectors who offered clear insight into the current status of thought and opinion on the questions presented to them. The following are excerpts from the meeting.
Dr. Emanuel Pastreich: Let’s identify the specific strengths of Korea and what some of the weaknesses are. We all probably agree that Korea has all the prerequisites to be the center of ICT for the world. It has all the necessary conditions in place. But let’s just talk about what your feelings are about what Korea has been good at, and what it has not been so good at.
Director Lee Sang-hun: I would like to first point out Korea’s ardent enthusiasm for technology as one of our strong points. Such exceptional interest in recent technology has made Koreans one of the most technology-savvy peoples in the world. Given its extraordinarily fast development in technology, Korea has therefore become an ideal place to first launch and test the state-of-the-art technology. This is indeed our foremost strong point in technological development.
The second point is Korean society’s positive and favorable attitude towards endorsing technological development. Both the public and private sectors show unwavering support that technological development will bring new benefits to our society. That is why we do not hesitate to invest a lot of money in R&D.
Pastreich: Koreans cherish the ideal of a “nation founded on technology.” In the US, although we have a lot of new technology, we also have the Unabomber, the Amish; there’s an anti-technology culture in the United States as well. We don’t see that in Korea. But in America there’s a significant anti-technology group that’s always there.
Lee: Despite an enormous amount invested in basic research in Korea, we Koreans put priorities in industrial technologies that directly benefit our daily lives. In other words, we are highly interested in practical technologies related to improving our daily lives. Rather than focusing on too grand and ambitious technologies such as those related to developing particle accelerators or exploring space, we instead concentrate on technologies that make our lives much more convenient, comfortable and productive. It naturally leads to our increased export competitiveness as those practical technologies are applied to our export products. Indeed, such practical approach is one of our unique strengths.
Dr. Chun Kyung-seok: Koreans like to see tangible results. They don’t place much value on software, which is an invisible thing. However, Korean industry eventually recognized the importance of developing software technology and content, all those thing which are not invisible. But they didn’t know how, because they are too much accustomed to a hardware-developing culture.
So you see now in Samsung Electronics, as well as in government, they are making great efforts to convert their potential from making something related to hardware to software-related products. They don’t know how. The first thing they must do is to change their concept of and approach to value. The big question is how they will do that.
And the second point is that, because of the history of Korean industry, Korea lacks a lot of software engineers, software academics and a general software industry. And this is not only true for software used in computers but also for content.
However, Korea is about to develop that kind of invisible product. K-pop is evidence of that transformation. So far, K-pop as well as other parts of the entertainment industry has been ignored in Korea. Because the elites do not understand the value of entertainment. It used to be that actors didn’t like to be actors because their own family did not accept them.
But now the mood has changed; the whole situation has changed. Now in the younger generation everyone wants to be star, an actress or an athlete. So, I think that Korea is entering into the right track in the sense that they are starting to develop a creative culture.
Until now, Korea has always been copying something, following the first leader. Up to now, Japan has been our target. But now the Korean electronics industry has caught up to the Japanese electronics industry. We have lost our direction, our benchmark.
So now, considering what’s next, I’m rather optimistic about Korean ICT industry. They will have a challenge to convert their power and potential into another direction which is related to software products. But I think they can succeed in making invisible products.
Pastreich: Sort of a related issue is the certain division in Korea between the administrative and technological parts of Korea and the creative culture. When I look at, for example, Korean buildings, they all look very similar. There’s not a lot of creativity in the design. So a foreigner might come and think that Koreans don’t have a lot of imagination. But if you go to New York City, some of the best artists, best creative people, in music and literature are Koreans.
So the issue is not that Koreans aren’t creative, it is that when the decisions are made about how to design a building, the artists are not involved. It’s just a different world – the worlds of creativity and administration are separate.
Lee: That’s a very good point about creativity in Korean society. I fully agree with you that buildings in Seoul look so similar to each other. It is because we emphasize efficiency of saving cost and time too much at the expense of creativity. No wonder there is little space left for creative ideas to be implemented or for creative talents to realize their dream in companies, governments or in the markets. As you correctly pointed out, Koreans are highly innovative and creative at an individual level. So the question becomes how to unleash such creative ideas to concrete plans, for instance, starting up a little business. That brings us to the reason why our Ministry was established, that is, to promote and realize the creative economy.
Dr. Sir Jae-chul: I am thinking about the ICT industry a lot, and I realize that it is very broad, can you can’t focus on everything. And speaking of software, we simply cannot make all software and export it when there are the likes of Microsoft or Oracle about, especially when we have the Internet. It is simply too difficult to keep up with all the rapid changes happening on the Internet in software development alone.
Korea can never become the forerunner of every ICT software product, so we need to make a choice, to concentrate on one type of product. But the industry moves too fast for government analysis to provide the answer. So, our Ministry turns to the answer of concentrating on developing manpower skill levels and raising the heart of Korean people. The general ideas are that we push ethics and technical training to provide a skilled pool of experts, and let them take care of themselves.
Pastreich: Another related issue is network neutrality, which has tremendous potential for Korea. As an American I think the strength of Korea is the government, highly qualified people in government who have a good background in IT, such as yourselves. The United States sometimes doesn’t have that. The United States also increasingly doesn’t have a strong role in shaping policy and setting standards. And network neutrality has now become a serious issue in the United States. If the United States can’t maintain a neutral environment, then I can see Korea playing an increasingly central role in the structure and the future of cyberspace.
Sir: A network neutral nation is very important. Any ISP must be very cheap and easy to access, and ease of use is also very important. But neutrality by the government is very hard. The Internet has no true master. The United States wants to be the master of the Internet, but different Internet societies have a different ideas – the EU, Russia, China, etc. There’s an ongoing power struggle. the Internet is a tool for connecting the world, so we need some international organizations to control the Internet, not national organizations. But we also need to be able to control the content. If there is no master there is no control, and that’s very dangerous.
Pastreich: There is no political neutrality; I'm not trying to promote a fantasy about that. But the potential for Korea is enormous. As a country, Korea is relatively balanced, relatively accessible, and as we go forward, as cyberspace becomes more complicated, the biggest field is going to be the governance of cyberspace. And because Korea has technology expertise and a very strong tradition of governance, strong government, that puts it in a very strong position in the next 20 years. When you go from the cyberspace that is a way to send email to the next level, you get the question of how you govern cyberspace. So to me that’s one of the more exciting things about Korea’s potential.
Sir: What I’d like to discuss is traffic. Every type of content, 3G, and Internet TV generates massive Internet traffic. My point is that mobile traffic is very high, and it is tightly controlled. But investment, like with IPS in Korea, is absent. There are 120 ISPs in Korea, but they don’t get investment anymore, and their income is too low. SKT, LG+, and KT don’t make money from providing the Internet. The traffic is very high, but the investment is very small. We need traffic control, crime control, and some content control is important too. If some content is not good for anyone, we must prohibit it. It’s a very hard set of factors to balance.
Matthew Weigand: So let’s focus on the traffic issue. The issue with net neutrality is the issue where some types of Internet traffic are given priority over others. Real-time communication and streaming video are given priority over emails and regular web browsing. So I guess the question is, now that the United States government has decided that net neutrality is not required anymore, what do you think the Korean government or Korean Internet society thinks about net neutrality and which direction do you think that Korea should go?
Lee: In regards to net neutrality, I am not in a position to give any comments on government policies since I am not in charge of the issue. However, after listening to various global discussions recently going on around the world, it seems that every country is still contemplating about specific policy direction about the net neutrality. The Korean government also needs to take some time until it can come up with much more concrete policy decisions for the issue since it is a highly complicated and complex issue.
As for traffic, heavy traffic, caused by 1 or 2 percent of heavy users, is becoming an increasingly complicated issue for telecoms carriers. Yet we have not yet reached a point where such heavy traffic severely compromises the speed of the net and Korean telecoms carriers are so far successfully managing increasing traffic, whether mobile, fixed, or landlines. The government is not to at the point of reaching concrete conclusion and for the time being we need to carefully look how the situation unfolds. So I think the Korean government may need a few more years to come up with final decision on the issue. Moreover, we also need to acknowledge that net neutrality is clearly a cross-border issue, which defies domestic solutions alone. It is highly related to other telecoms carriers, Internet companies and governments around the world. It has therefore become an increasingly complicated and controversial global issue. As far as I know, the EU Commission has also been contemplating hard about the issue as France and Germany tried to disclose some part of their positions on net neutrality.
Weigand: Mr. Chun, do you think there are legal issues related to net neutrality that need to be addressed?
Chun: When I think about neutrality issues, I always keep in mind the Seoul Metropolitan bus line policy. They combined all the bus lines distributed all over the Seoul area. They created a mainstream to share, and then distributed half of the resources gathered to the bus companies. So, this solution could be applicable to neutrality issues. It could share similar characteristics with net neutrality.
From the legal perspective, it is very important to talk about liability issues. And another aspect is how to allocate financial resources. So related to revenue and human resources, its simple to say that we have to find a solution to net neutrality. In order to be neutral, enormous factors should get together to make a white light. A white light consists of all different colors. So we need to wait and discuss whatever we need to continue to discuss.
Pastreich: I’ve often found that in Korea there are extremely good systems of governance of which Koreans themselves are not aware. For example, Seoul City has a whole online budget system where people can confirm how money is spent; where people online can communicate with the city. Not just Seoul by the way, other cities as well. I think it’s done extremely well in Seoul. Korea has done much better than other countries in “e-government.” So Korea has latent talent for creating global standards. They often imagine that the United States is so much more advanced, but often Korea is doing quite well.
Chun: My point is governance, not government. The government is divided into civil society, which is in the end the users, like the patients in a medical establishment. The ultimate importance is the patient, not the doctor or the medical system. The ISP is the provider, government is the policy maker, but the most important thing is the users. Internet society is very effective in the United States and the EU, grows very fast and is phenomenally active. In Korea this is not quite the case. Even though I am under the umbrella of the government side, I think that civil society, the users, are the patient. That’s the point.
Lee: Speaking of users, Korean Internet users display unique characteristics. Their mentality is, if my neighbor does, so will I. In other words, if you buy, I buy. But, if you die, I don’t die! Acting together as a group, with a collective spirit, is a powerful trait that speeds up Korea’s development so quickly.
Dr. Chun Kyung-seok is a patent attorney for Kim & Chang Law Firm. Before that, he worked as the director of the Unfair Trade Investigation Division of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry & Energy. He has also been a lecturer at the Graduate School of Engineering in Yonsei University. His education includes a PhD from Paris II University, an ME in Bioelectronics and a BE in Electrical Engineering from Yonsei University.
Director Lee Sang-hun is the director of the Multilateral Cooperation Division of the Ministry of Science, ICT and Futurue Planning. Previously, he worked as the Director of Network Security/Spokeperson Office/Green ICT Team of the Former Korea Communications Commission from 2008 to 2012. He has a B.A. In Political Science & Diplomatics and an M.A. in Economics from Sogang University, and an M.A. in Political Science from Strasbourg University, France.
Dr. Emanuel Pastreich is a professor of humanities at Kyung Hee University. He is also an author of several books about Korean culture, and its lessons that can be applied to the modern digital age. He is a graduate from Harvard, Yale, Seoul National University, and Tokyo University.
Dr. Sir Jae-chul is a senior researcher for the Korea Internet and Security Agency. He also serves as an invited professor at the Graduate School of Information Security at Korea University. Previously he worked at the Korea Information and Culture Center promoting the ICT industry as a lecturer. He earned his PhD in Computer Science from Hanyang University. He has also written our books about Auto Desk that are practically textbooks for the 3D design sector of Korea.