Not connected to expatsMy Korean friends and colleagues often ask me my favorite things about living in Korea. I talk about the delicious food, the fantastic transport network, the vibrant nightlife and the constant change and evolution of the country. Not content to bask in praise, friends then want to know about frustrations or dislikes for a foreigner in Korea. Invariably, one topic comes to the top of my mind - online shopping or e-commerce.
This may sound like a relatively trivial complaint. It may also seem surprising given the all-pervasive nature of the Internet in Korea. This is a country with near total broadband coverage and some of the fastest connection speeds in the world. South Korea has the leading number of DSL Internet connections per capita. It is also a country where, in theory, one can buy more or less anything online. However, if you are a foreigner - particularly one who is not fluent with Korean - this treasure trove of convenience is often firmly shut.
For consumers, Statistics Korea reports that travel, fashion and household goods are the most common areas of online spending. Whether at home, in one of the ubiquitous Internet cafes or even via a smartphone while riding the subway, with a few simple clicks or taps of the finger, Koreans can do everything from booking their next holiday to reserving a cinema ticket or ordering some tasty fried chicken.
In my experience, foreigners looking to make the most of this connected society face three major barriers: Language, credit cards and registration cards.
Some major sites do offer English-language versions. GMarket, the Korean auction site owned by eBay, is one such example. The major airlines also offer foreign-language sites. However, English versions are often scaled-down from the Korean site and don’t offer the same range of services. Translations are also better on some than on others. Perhaps a full English version is an unfair expectation. The vast majority of users are Korean and the time and cost involved in creating another version should not be dismissed. Moreover, one can always reach out to a friend or online dictionary for a little assistance.
Assuming you have mastered Korean or found someone to help you, you then come to the issue of payment. I have been shocked by the difficulty in using my U.K.-issued credit cards here in Korea. MasterCard and Visa are standard all over the world so you can imagine my frustration when my travel agent told me that Korean Air would not accept my MasterCard. At the British embassy, we have had many cases of staff embarrassment when they were unable to pay for business lunches with corporate credit cards issued in the U.K. Surely in an advanced, wired country like Korea, international standard cards should be accepted?
Even if you manage to obtain a Korean credit card or find a site that will accept your card, the Resident Registration Number system is likely to pose an insurmountable challenge. Most Korean sites require users’ Resident Registration Number. Unfortunately, diplomatic ID cards don’t have the same numbering system. Neither do foreigners’ registration card numbers. I have had to exercise restraint on several occasions after having come close to completing a transaction and then being foiled by my lack of a Korean-equivalent ID number. If I want to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster, it’s a morning rush to the cinema to buy a ticket for that evening - no online seat reservation for me. Fancy a takeout pizza for dinner? Better find one of the few Web sites that don’t require those card digits.
I am a great admirer of Korea’s lightning-fast Internet and potential e-commerce opportunities, I just wish I wasn’t shut out from so many. According to a report by the Boston Consulting Group, the U.K.’s digital economy contributes a greater share to its GDP than any other G20 nation. If South Korea, currently second, wants to close the gap or overtake the U.K., perhaps more thought could be given to making systems more usable for the 1.45 million foreign residents here.
*The author is head of media & public affairs for the British Embassy in Seoul.
By Colin Gray