Thursday, December 18, 2008

iPhone, BlackBerry to Make Debut in Korea

Tech-savvy residents in South Korea will finally have access to the iPhone and the BlackBerry Bold after being shut out from the globally popular smartphones. SK Telecom, Korea’s largest mobile carrier, and Canada’s Research in Motion held an ornate ceremony at a posh Seoul hotel on Dec. 16 to mark the launch of the BlackBerry Bold in the country at the end of this month. It will be the first time the BlackBerry service is offered to Koreans by a major local wireless carrier.

To counter SK’s initiative, KT Freetel, Korea’s second-largest mobile carrier known as KTF, says it plans to introduce Apple’s 3G iPhone in April although it has yet to agree with Apple on pricing and other details. The rush to introduce the iPhone underscores the smartphone race underway among Korean operators trying to increase revenues in a market with a mobile subscription rate of well over 90%.

The use of the iPhone and other foreign phones has been discouraged by Korea’s regulatory requirements too. To help smaller companies develop Internet-related applications at lower costs, the Seoul government in 2005 made it mandatory for all handset makers and content providers to use a software standard for Internet access, called WIPI, or Wireless Internet Platform for Interoperability, in Korea. The Korean Communications Commission announced last week that the rule, which meant extra cost for foreign makers because of the need to modify their phones, will be abolished from April 1.

An exception to that requirement was made earlier this year for business users, paving the way for the BlackBerry Bold’s debut before April. SK says the phone will be offered to all consumers if there’s demand for non-business use. Industry watchers notes KTF, which has a 31.5% market share in Korea, has been desperately trying to offer differentiated services to narrow its gap with SK, with more than 50% share, and the iPhone could be one option.

Some analysts say, however, the iPhone probably won’t do the trick. Nokia is virtually non-existent in Korea where consumers are more attracted to phones made by local companies Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics. The two Korean electronic powerhouses each roll out scores of sleek multimedia handsets and smartphones featuring leading-edge technologies every year. The Big Two together control nearly 80% of the Korean handset market.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

South Korean actress found guilty of adultery

One of South Korea's most famous actresses was convicted of adultery Wednesday in a high-profile case that drew renewed attention to a decades-old law prohibiting extramarital affairs.

Ok So-ri, who was handed a suspended jail term, had lost a battle in October to have the ban declared unconstitutional.

"I would like to say I'm sorry for causing so much trouble to society," a somber Ok told reporters after the verdict.

A district court in Goyang, near Seoul, handed Ok a suspended eight-month jail sentence, South Korean media reported, meaning she will not have to serve time. Ok's lover received a six-month suspended term.

There was no immediate word on any plans for appeal.

The sensational sex-and-celebrities case has been tabloid fodder for months, with Ok's challenge to the adultery law adding extra spice.

Last year, Ok acknowledged during a news conference that she had had an affair with an opera singer who was a friend of her husband for a few months in 2006. She stressed the affair was a result of her loveless marriage to actor Park Chul.

The court appeared to show some sympathy for Ok's predicament.

"Though the fact of adultery should be criticized, (the court) issued this ruling taking into account that husband Park Chul's responsibility was not small," the court said, according to cable news channel YTN.

She also "suffered mental pains" due to the exposure of her privacy, the court said.

Ok earlier this year filed a petition to have the adultery ban ruled an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. But in October, the Constitutional Court upheld the ban, part of South Korea's 55-year-old criminal code.

Despite decades of Western influence, South Korea remains deeply conservative and is influenced by a Confucian heritage. Those convicted under the anti-adultery law face prison sentences of up to two years, though few serve time.

Supporters of the adultery ban say it promotes monogamy and keeps families intact. Opponents argue the law violates privacy. Complaints have been filed with the Constitutional Court three times in 1990, 1993 and 2001 to abolish the law, but the court has upheld it every time.

While women's rights group were the ban's biggest supporters in the past when the law was meant to keep philandering husbands in line, in recent years some husbands have begun pressing adultery charges on their unfaithful wives.

The number of adultery cases filed in South Korea has dropped in recent years, declining to 8,070 in 2006 from 12,760 in 2000, according to the Supreme Prosecutors' Office. About 80 percent of those cases were dropped before formal charges were filed, largely because complaints were withdrawn.

Many Muslim nations have anti-adultery laws, some with harsh penalties. Taiwan, Austria, Switzerland and some U.S. states also have laws prohibiting extramarital affairs, according to the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations, a government-funded legal counseling office.


Friday, December 12, 2008

South Korea's online economic Nostradamus, and the search for his identity

BACK in September a message appeared on an online bulletin board owned by Daum, the most popular web host in a country, South Korea, with a huge internet culture. Written by someone called “Minerva”, it predicted the imminent collapse of Lehman Brothers, a now-defunct investment bank.

Wild speculation is normally disregarded, but when it proved to be right just five days later, a prophet was born. Word raced through the “netizen” community, and when Minerva went on to predict that the Korean won would fall against the dollar by around 50 won a day in the first half of the week of October 6th, his followers began to watch the currency markets in anticipation. The won did indeed fall by about that much over the next three days.

Minerva became an internet phenomenon, with 40m-odd hits to date. Web-users combed through previous posts, looking for prognostications, and clues about his identity. Sharp comments on the state of the Korean economy and government policy only increased his standing. The media now call him “the Internet Economic President”.

The administration of President Lee Myung-bak is frequently accused of authoritarianism by opponents, so it came as little surprise when the finance minister, Kang Man-soo, admitted that officials had attempted to uncover the blogger’s identity. Some people believe him to be a senior figure in a financial firm. Others think he may even be a civil servant undermining the government from inside. All Minerva has revealed is that he is a man in his 50s.

With the government on his tail, the Minerva case is no longer just about economic prescience. As one equity analyst in Seoul puts it, “The real issue about Minerva is the government’s action…we are not in the 1970s or 1980s!” During that period South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship, and freedom of speech curtailed.

For now, given the state of Korea’s economy—the central bank slashed rates again this week—Minerva’s identity has taken a back seat to his more recent predictions. He says the KOSPI 100 stockmarket index, now over 1,000, will drop to 500, and the value of flats in Seoul will fall by half. Such a bearish prospect may appear outlandish but, unlike Cassandra, Minerva has many believers.

Monday, December 08, 2008

A letter about kimchi

(click to enlarge)


Coming to a tiny screen near you

Watching TV and movies on cellphones is so common in South Korea, people no longer think twice about it.