KakaoTalk finds itself in turmoil

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KakaoTalk finds itself in turmoil

About 10 days ago, someone asked me if I was on Telegram yet. My first thought was, “What is Telegram?”

So I downloaded it and found that it was a messenger service that maybe 20 people in my phone book were already using. A couple of days later, that number had risen to about 40. And so on.

Most of those on my list are either involved in progressive politics or in the tech industry. But when something that relies on the network effect starts blowing up, it can pretty quickly become mainstream, and even potentially replace the incumbent. I remember hearing about a Korean student telling a young Mark Zuckerberg that his Facebook idea would fail because there was already something far superior in Korea called Cyworld.

I cannot really imagine Telegram replacing Kakao, or even eating heavily into Kakao’s market share in the long run. But the fact that people are even mentioning it as a possibility is shocking. Kakao is that rare example of a fantastically successful homegrown business that made it without state involvement. In Korea’s hierarchical, chaebol-ruled economic environment, it is exactly the kind of company the country needs if it wants to get to the next level. It should be one of the leading representatives of the “creative economy.”

How sad and ironic, then, that the state itself has been driving people into the exotic yet reassuring embrace of Telegram. In a country where people had no worry about the state taking unreasonable interest in their communications, there wouldn’t be much need for messages that “self-destruct” in five seconds. It can be no coincidence that Telegram is more popular in authoritarian nations than democratic ones.

I’m not saying that Korea isn’t a democracy, but one does worry about the quality of Korea’s democracy. In the past few years, for instance, the country has drastically slipped down in rankings that measure press freedom, to the point that the think tank Freedom House downgraded Korea from a “free” to “partly free” press environment rating in 2011. Korean governments usually care a lot about rankings and how the country looks in the eyes of the rest of the world, but measures of media freedom and political openness are an interesting exception.

During my time as a reporter in Seoul, I often came across people in positions of power (in politics and business) who exuded a kind of born-to-rule attitude. They tend to reluctantly accept criticism from outside Korea - the international press, for instance - because there is little they can do about it. But criticism from within Korea meets with lawsuits and sometimes threats and investigations.

I remember being quite disappointed to read of one lawmaker saying of the demonstrators protesting Park Geun-hye during her visit to Paris, “We will let them pay the due price,” and adding he would be asking the Ministry of Justice to collect photos of protesters in order to give them to the Constitutional Court.

Of course, it is perfectly fine to disagree with the protesters and call them idiots if you wish, but to want to punish people for simply expressing an opinion isn’t the kind of mentality you find in a place like Paris. It’s more like the kind of mentality you find in Moscow, the original home of Telegram.

But such a mentality can even be counterproductive. Was the investigation and prosecution of Minerva, a controversial cyber pundit, not ultimately the best thing that could have happened to him, in terms of his popularity? I remember Professor Chang Ha-joon once telling me with a chuckle how grateful he was to the armed forces for banning their conscripts from reading his book and thus making its sales double in Korea.

The same has been happening now with Telegram. Instead of achieving its aims, the excessive response of prosecutors to the president’s words, “Insulting remarks on a president representing the people have exceeded the limit,” is actually driving more criticism toward the president, and worse still, causing undeserved trouble to one of Korea’s brightest companies.

And besides, I would say that one of the conditions for a president truly “representing the people” is for it to be acceptable for “the people” to criticize that president if they so wish.

*The author is a former Seoul correspondent for The Economist.

by Daniel Tudor
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