[Viewpoint] A path for Hangul’s rise

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[Viewpoint] A path for Hangul’s rise

Her name was Sandy. She was a bit chubby and had a good sense of humor. “What do you call people who are fluent in three languages?” asked Sandy, who was a teacher in an English language class. Her students, however, were silent. “Trilingual,” she said.

“How about the people fluent in two?” she asked, and the students said “Bilingual!” Then, Sandy asked her final question. “How about just one?” The classroom was silent, once again. She then said, “The answer is an American.” We all laughed.

It was a moment from my class during a fellowship in the United States a few years ago. At the time, Sandy said Americans should be embarrassed, but she showed no sign of embarrassment even though she only spoke English.

I am a narrow-minded person, and her attitude made me think: She was showing off the power of English because English-speakers did not need to learn another language. And I thought Americans would never understand the hard life of Koreans who had to learn English, Chinese and Japanese to be successful.

Whenever Hangul week comes every year - Oct. 9 is the 564th anniversary of the start of the Korean script - I think back to that time. And I also dream about a world in which the Hangul rules. I dream about a world in which all people are forced to use Hangul. It’s a world in which the people will feel proud of simply being born in Korea and speaking Korean.

A sign of such a world has been seen. Korea’s growing prominence in economic and cultural circles is that sign. But it’s not enough.

Will there be a new breakthrough? The answer is yes. The patent is a good example.

Patent industry workers have increasingly expressed their appreciation to King Sejong, who introduced the Korean script. They said they were making their living because of Hangul, and they have become busier and busier recently.

The Korean Intellectual Property Office recruited 69 new examiners this year, because foreign companies’ applications skyrocketed. In 2005, only 20 requests were made, but the number soared to 13,978 this year. The office also greatly increased the fee for examinations.

Two years ago, the average fee was $244, but the amount went up to $609. Earlier this year, the fee was increased to $1,092. The fee has gone up nearly five times over the two years. It was a signal that the office does not want so many applications, hoping the expensive service would deter some applicants. The strategy, however, did not work.

This year, up to August, 9,155 applications were filed. It is already more than the total number of applications received last year. “Four years ago, the United States Patent and Trademark Office made it mandatory for an international patent applicant to go through examination in the Korean office,” said an official from the Korean Intellectual Property Office. “Since then, examination applications soared. Last year alone, we earned about 10 billion won [$8.9 million] for examination services.”

Law firms are also enjoying the situation. A patent lawyer said his work has gone up 10 times in comparison to four years ago.

WIPS, which provides patent search service, hired 30 new employees this year. “Only 11 years after the foundation, we became the world’s fifth-largest patent search service company,” said WIPS’s CEO Lee Hyung-chil. “It’s because of the Hangul patent.”

Information technology companies have contributed the most to making Korea a strong patent power. As the companies rise in the world market, their patents have become a lucrative resource. “In the past, we just had to look into U.S. and European papers for a patent litigation,” said a lawyer specializing in patent litigation. “But now, it is crucial to search Korean technical documentations. Or else, you will risk a big loss.”

A multinational pharmaceutical company is a good example. The company applied for patents in countries around the world for its new drug five years ago. But a thesis, written in Korean, became a serious obstacle.

A master’s degree thesis written by a Korean university student already included a related patent. The company had to lose a billion won used for the patents as well as hundreds of billions of won in the development of the new drug.

Since then, multinational firms have begun looking into Korean documentations before applying for a patent. Microsoft filed 563 examination requests to Korea’s patent office last year, and about 20 percent of them were searches for Korean-language documentations.

There should be more items powered by Hangul’s competitiveness in the future. That’s the path for Korea’s intellectual survival and the path for Hangul’s survival.

When my dream of such a world is realized, I really want to do one thing. I want to invite Americans, Europeans and Chinese people and teach them Hangul.

And I really want to make the joke, “What do you call people who only speak one language?” The answer, of course, is “Koreans.”

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

By Yi Jung-jae
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