[Viewpoint] A technological hermit kingdom

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[Viewpoint] A technological hermit kingdom

On July 8, 1853, four military ships led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry appeared at the coast of what is now known as Tokyo Bay. It was a typical show of gunboat diplomacy that demanded the opening of the port through armed protest. The following year, the United States and Japan agreed on a peace treaty.

The flagship of Perry’s fleet was the Susquehanna, a 2,450-ton paddle steamer. Due to the ship’s coal tar coating, applied to prevent the wood from rotting, the Japanese called it the “kurofune,” or black ship. The main ships of Japan at the time were only somewhere between 100 and 200 tons. The black ship was probably as intimidating as a 10,000-ton U.S. Navy aircraft carrier is today.

One of the young men who felt the “shock and awe” of seeing this ship was Shoin Yoshida. Yet despite the ship’s intimidating silhouette, Yoshida stole a small fishing boat and approached the black vessel to learn about its crew. Yoshida was not allowed on board and had to spend a few years in prison after he made it back to land, but this did not dampen his spirits. The students he taught after he returned to his homeland, including Hirobumi Ito, led the Meiji Restoration and modernized Japan.

On Nov. 28, 2009, a slim smartphone was introduced to Korea. The Apple iPhone, only six centimeters (2.4 inches) in width, 12 centimeters in length and 135 grams (0.3 pounds) in weight, changed the Korean mobile communications market in just three months.

The mobile phone has evolved from a tool for vocal communication to a computer in the palm of the hand that can be used to listen to music, play games and surf the Web.

According to KT, iPhone sales have reached over 400,000. Average wireless data usage per month has increased by a factor of 122. With people also taking interest in the Omnia and Motoroi handsets, the number of smartphone users far exceeds 1 million.

Smartphones’ popularity is restructuring the Korean Internet environment. However, the Korean government’s movements are the opposite of Yoshida’s. For the past few years, it has only tried to repress the introduction of new services in the IT field in any way possible. Mobile phones were forced to include WIPI, a Korean wireless Internet platform. This prevented the iPhone from entering Korea, the so-called IT power country, for over a year after its release.

Even though Korea has the fastest average high-speed Internet infrastructure in the world, it delayed activation of Internet telephones (VoIP) and Internet TV (IPTV). This is because the country had to watch out for the reaction of telephone companies and national broadcasters. Some problems have been solved, but there is still a long way to go. Using a foreign company’s navigation system or downloading mobile games from the App Store using the iPhone are not possible at the moment because of domestic regulations.

Furthermore, Korean Web sites are plagued with annoying required downloads called ActiveX plug-ins. Instead of using official authentication certificates for security, Korean sites still insist on the outdated method of installing virus detection programs, firewalls and other security measures through ActiveX. Therefore, smartphones have problems accessing online banking or online shopping services properly.

Experts are despairing over Korea’s “digital isolationism” that refuses to meet global standards.

In Yoshida’s day, Japan had no choice but to open its port to the big black ship. The country quickly accepted Western systems and invaded Joseon 12 years later. On Sept. 20, 1875, the Japanese military ship Unyo appeared at the shore of Ganghwa Island. When Joseon soldiers attacked the ship for illegal invasion of territorial waters, Japanese soldiers destroyed Fort Choji with naval bombardment and attacked Fort Yeongjong. Thirty-five Joseon soldiers were killed in battle and 16 became prisoners of war, and the Japanese stole 35 cannons and around 130 matchlock guns. Only two Japanese soldiers were injured. Still, the Japanese held Joseon responsible. The following year, the road to colonization opened as the Joseon-Japan Protection Treaty was signed at Ganghwa Island.

The Unyo was just a 245-ton steam sailboat with two cannons. The Joseon naval forces beat Japanese ships during the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592 with the panokseon, a warship with large arrows that pierced through 40 centimeters of granite. Yet 300 years later, it could not do anything against a small gunboat. It was a chilling end to Korea’s seclusion.

Paradoxically, Japan, the country that dominated Asia by opening its port 100 years ago, recently took a road of seclusion in the electronics and communications fields. Like animals of the Galapagos Islands that independently evolved away from other continents, it had top technology but focused only on the domestic market.

Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics burrowed their way through this crack and are now fighting over first and second place in the international TV and mobile phone markets. However, if we continue to insist on “our way” in terms of content, software and communication services, we too will only end up becoming a “digital Galapagos.”

*The writer is a business news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Kim Chang-woo
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