중앙데일리

Overregulated PC bangs go out with a whimper

July 25,2011
Lee, a 17-year-old high school student who lives with his grandmother in Incheon, is the bread earner of his household.

Every day after school, Lee worked for five hours at a PC bang, as Internet cafe are dubbed in Korea, and his 500,000 won ($475) monthly salary helped his family get by.

But the owner of the PC bang recently let Lee go. He said the law forced him. Last month, the National Assembly passed a revised law on teenage protection that designates PC bangs as a “harmful” business, and banned them from hiring teens.

“Now I have to go look for a job that’s more dangerous, like working at a gas station or as a motorcycle courier,” Lee told the JoongAng Ilbo.

PC bangs are similar to Internet cafes anywhere in the world, but with a difference. They were a phenomenon that sprung from the country’s unique Internet and gaming culture, and went on to grow that culture.

Offering ultra-high-speed Internet connections, rows and rows of screens, and often a dark, basement-like setting, the 24-hour parlors brought Koreans into the Internet age faster than people in any other country.

PC bangs enjoyed their heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s. After the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998, many people who lost their jobs opened PC bangs to survive.

Bang translates as “room” in Korean, and the PC bang was the latest addition to the “bang” culture in Korea, which includes noraebang (karaoke room) and jjimjilbang (public bathhouse).

PC bangs are also thought to have played an instrumental role in transforming Korea into one of the world’s IT powerhouses. But with society’s negative perception of all the gaming that goes on in them, these Internet institutions are being battered by one government regulation after another.

Korea’s Internet cafes, or PC bang, like this one in Mapo Distrct, western Seoul, are struggling under dozens of government regulations, including a running imbroglio over whether they can sell cup ramen to customers. By Kim Do-hoon

Bombarded with regulations

The saying in the industry is that “except for the Unification Ministry, all ministries are out to get PC bangs.”

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is tasked with overseeing and managing PC bangs, but currently about 10 government agencies - including the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the Ministry of Employment and Labor and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology - impose their own regulations on the Internet cafes.

One such restriction to take effect by the year’s end is the Cinderella law pushed jointly by the culture and family ministries. Under the law, PC bangs cannot offer online games to anyone younger than 16 from midnight to 6 a.m., in the hopes of curbing game addiction among Korean minors.

The industry hardly agrees with such rules.

“While [the government] touts game exports, it appears to consider game playing a sin,” said Kim, a 42-year-old owner of a PC bang in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul.

A netizen also questioned: “Is it just to hold PC bangs accountable for the country’s game addiction?”

The industry is equally unconvinced with the ban on hiring teenage part-timers. To justify the regulation, the Family Ministry behind the law says, “Teenagers are exposed to passive smoking and violent scenes in games.”

A recent figure shows that only 1,300 of 45,000 employees at Korean PC bangs - or 3 percent - are in their teens.

“Most of these workers in their teens are from low-income families and are bread earners.” said Lee, a 35-year-old owner of a PC bang in Incheon. “All of them are now out of work thanks to the law.”

Some restrictions are not even being imposed correctly.

Jo, a 37-year-old owner of a PC bang in Imun-dong, central Seoul, was recently hit with a fine. He was guilty of pouring boiling water into a customer’s cup ramen, and someone caught him with a camera and filed a report.

“I was told that if customers pour the water themselves, it’s OK. But if I pour the water, I’m guilty,” Jo said. “There are many cases in which owners served green tea, and ended up paying a 500,000 won fine.”

This is because the sanitation law for businesses that cook and serve food is unclear when it comes to PC bangs. Depending on the local government, some ban the sale of cup ramen and tea; some allow it as long as customers serve themselves; and others allow owners to pour boiling water, although they’re not allowed to directly serve customers.

Only last Friday, as media criticism mounted, the Korean government declared it’s OK to serve cup ramen and tea at the Internet cafes.

Another law that’s a hot potato is the one that completely bans smoking at PC bangs. The law was passed at the National Assembly last month, and that has prompted the cooperative union of Korean PC bangs to file a constitutional appeal.

“When the government mandated separation of smoking and nonsmoking areas in 2008, the businesses spent 15 to 20 million won for remodeling,” said Kim Jun-cheol, a senior manager with the union. “And now it’s asking us to remodel once again.”

Over the hill?

Losing customers is certainly what PC bang owners are worried about, in addition to all the laws to abide by.

In 2003 - the heyday of PC bangs - there were some 27,000 parlors across the country helping popularize high-speed Internet and e-sports. Korea’s e-sports industry is a major force behind the global gaming business.

But PC bangs also come with the stigma that they foster Internet addiction, game addicts and even sociopaths. The march of technology is taking its toll on the industry too, with the rising popularity of mobile devices and an increasing number of Wi-Fi zones.

Since 2008, some 3,000 to 4,000 PC bangs have closed every year.

Jo Yong-cheol, the head of the Internet PC Association said: “Many PC bang owners end up becoming penniless when they shut down their businesses, not even being able to retrieve their original investment. The PC bang is one of the classic businesses run by seomin [low- and middle-income people], so the government should not only come up with regulations, but also ways to revive and invigorate the industry.”


By Shim Seo-hyeon, Kim Hyung-eun [hkim@joongang.co.kr]



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