Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Touch the Future" ad from Invest Korea


Data points to bigger economic crash in South Korea than 1997

Korea's latest economic indicators are plummeting faster than they did during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, raising alarm that the current economic downturn could be worse, government data showed yesterday.

After the September debacle on Wall Street, the global financial crisis put Korea's output, exports and consumption into a downward spiral in November, and sapped jobs in December, according to data from the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, the National Statistical Office and the Bank of Korea.

The data showed that production in the mining and manufacturing industries contracted 14.1 percent in November from a year ago, the worst since the government began compiling such data in 1970. The indicator first swung into the red in October with a 2.3 percent contraction.
The decline of the two monthly figures was steeper than a 0.4 percent contraction in December 1997 and a 7.7 percent contraction in January 1998.

Industry watchers attribute the quick contraction to worse-than-expected exports.
Exports, the main pillar of the Korean economy, dropped 19.5 percent in November and further plummeted an estimated 30 percent in the first 20 days of January.

According to the Korea Customs Service, local firms shipped an estimated $12.47 billion worth of goods during the first 20 days of this month, compared with $17.54 billion a year earlier.
Factories operated at just 68 percent of their capacity in November, compared with 80.6 percent a year ago, government data showed. It was the lowest level since 65.7 percent in August 1998.

As production of consumer goods decreased, consumption fell to the worst level in more than a decade. The November sales of consumer goods shrank 5.9 percent, the lowest since minus 7.3 percent in December 1998.

The weak exports and domestic demand created in a vicious circle, leading to output cuts and restructuring.

The economy lost 12,000 jobs in December from a year earlier, the first such decline in five years. The employment rate for those in their 20s stood at 57.8 percent in December, the lowest since May 1999, according to the NSO.

No bright spots in almost all economic indicators led the nation to suffer the worst fourth quarter GDP contraction in 11 years. The economy shrank 3.4 percent in the October-December period from a year earlier.

Many firms are forecast to suffer downgrades in their credit ratings, other industry data showed.

According to the credit rating agency Korea Investors Service, 283 Korean firms' annual rating drift rates, or upgrade rates minus downgrade rates divided by the total, swung into the red last year for the first time since minus 51.92 percent recorded in 1998.

The upward trend in credit ratings of Korean firms, which has been continuing since 1999, is now over due to increased credit risks from the last year's financial market distress, credit crunch and the deterioration in the real estate industry, a KIS official said.

Consequently, more than 20 percent of 481 corporate bonds as of Monday last week received BB or lower ratings, because the redemption of those bonds were deemed as somewhat speculative to be guaranteed in the long term, KIS said.

Ssangyong Motors and C&Heavy Industries have been excluded from the ratings evaluation since the two were rated D, or in default. Ssangyong, the Korean unit of Sanghai Automotive Industry Corp. of China has asked court receivership and creditor banks decided to cut off rescue loans to C& Heavy earlier this month. ◦

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Woman to appear on South Korean banknote for first time

A woman will appear on South Korean banknotes for the first time, with the issuance of a new 50,000-won ($36) bill, the central bank announced Tuesday.

The front of the bill — South Korea's largest-denominated note — will show artwork by and a portrait of Shin Saim-dang, a well-known artist who died in 1551. Shin was the mother of Yi I, a famous Confucian scholar, and is popularly referred to as a symbol of a "wise mother and good wife."

Some of Shin's artwork already appears on the back of the 5,000-won note; the front of the bill is adorned with a portrait of Yi, known by his pen name Yulgok.

Shin was one of the most respected female figures in Korea's Joseon Dynasty, which ruled from 1392 to 1910.

An official with the Bank of Korea said the choice of Shin was significant because it marks the first time a woman will be featured on the banknotes of South Korea, a traditionally male-dominated society.

The new note has strengthened anti-forgery technologies and will debut before June, said the official who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak to media.

The note will be the country's highest-denominated bill followed by the 10,000 won.

The bank decided last week not to issue a 100,000-won (about $70) bill at the government's request.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Taming Korea's Wild Wild Web

In a society where over 97% of households have high-speed broadband access, the Internet has the power to make or break the careers of South Korean politicians and entertainers and to publicize the private lives of common individuals. Live Web-casts of political rallies and street protests, like those this summer against U.S. beef imports, are common. And “netizens” are vigilant in their monitoring of politicians and the press.

But there is a downside. Internet bullying is a major problem. In 2005, netizens so harassed a girl who had not cleaned up after her dog that one newspaper called it “a kind of nationwide cyber lynching.” Today, many Koreans believe that Internet bullying caused the recent suicide of the famous actress, Choe Jin Sil. Korea’s ruling Grand National Party has seized the moment to push for stronger regulation and hopes to pass new legislation to increase Internet regulation by the end of the year.

The proposed legislation 1) requires real-name identification system for all who post comments online; 2) mandates portals to delete “malicious entries” within 24 hours of receiving complaints; 3) requires sites with more than 100,000 visitors, rather than the current 300,000, to verify user identities. Violators—both providers and consumers—can face jail time and/or substantive monetary fines. And the national police has been deployed to “hunt, arrest, and punish” individuals who upload falsities and pernicious rumors.

Advocates believe eliminating anonymity will discourage cyber-bullying and cyber-terrorism, while critics argue that the legislation threatens freedom of speech and privacy.

Many also accuse President Lee Myungbak and his party of seeking to control the Internet to suppress public opposition to his policies, such as the resumption of beef imports from the U.S. and the free trade agreement negotiated with the Bush administration.

But Mr. Lee’s administration is not the first to push for Internet controls. Government efforts began under his predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun, the “progressive” whose election victory in 2002 was due in part to Internet mobilization of supporters. In 2005, both the ruling Uri Party and the opposition GNP supported the first attempt by the Ministry of Information and Culture (MIC) to require real names and resident registration numbers (akin to the Social Security number in the U.S.) for online postings. And Yahoo Korea, Naver, and Daum—the major online outlets—found that a majority of those polled also supported the real name system. The government and people were responding to the proliferation of cyber crimes. And in the fall of 2007, MIC made plans to permit the use of registered mobile-phone numbers or personal identification numbers (PINs) rather than the resident registration number in order to protect Internet users from cyber scams and the “leakage” of personal information.

Certainly, Internet culture in Korea is like the Wild Wild West, chaotic, and something of a free-for-all. It is an extension of “street politics” that has characterized Korean politics for decades. From the 1960s to the 1980s, people spilled out onto the streets to fight for democracy, and the habit of hurling political grievances, opinions and insults in public has continued since democratization. Not only common citizens but elected officials also regularly bombard streets and cyberspace to push their positions and oppose others’. Some Korean legislators have become notorious for using their own Web sites to skewer one another.

Regardless of good intentions to reduce or prevent Internet abuse, the Lee government’s current plans to contain the Internet by making online expression potentially criminal and punitive do not make sense in a modern democracy. Add to that the fact that no government can really control cyberspace. There is already a history of government control over political expression through the Internet. During the closing months of the last presidential campaign, the National Election commission had prohibited online postings that criticized the candidates. The penalty, if found guilty, was up to three years in prison or a 30 million won fine ($33,000). Many in Korea believed that the regulation had suppressed “Internet democracy,” especially in a society where online news access has overtaken traditional print media.

Improving laws on slander, libel and harassment, rather than tightening government control of the Internet, may be a more sensible way to hold online abusers accountable. But civic education, from elementary school on up, about personal responsibility in all areas of public life, not just the Internet, is urgently needed. In Korea (and elsewhere), many Internet users just scream at or condemn others. But blurting out words does not equal democratic participation. Democratic life requires learning how to deliberate on one’s own and with others by consuming and creating information with discipline and discernment. Fostering the deliberative process and constructive debate can make a big difference between democracy and chaos.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

South Korean convicted of marital rape commits suicide

A man who last week became the first person convicted of marital rape in South Korea was found dead in an apparent suicide, police said.

The 42-year-old man was found hanged Tuesday at his home in the southern city of Busan, police officer Kim Jong-moon said.

An initial forensic examination shows that the man, identified only by his surname Lim, killed himself, though no suicide note was found, the officer said.

His death came four days after he was sentenced to a suspended 30-month prison term for raping his 25-year-old Filipino wife at knifepoint.

The case marked the first time a man in traditionally male-dominated South Korea has been convicted of marital rape.

Lim had strongly complained about his conviction, claiming the rape occurred "accidentally" while the couple fought and that their relationship was not good because she was negligent about housekeeping, news reports said.

Reports said the couple met through a marriage broker in 2006.


Friday, January 16, 2009

WiBro Turns Into White Elephant

Korea's hope of creating a legacy in wireless technology may come true but for all the wrong reasons.

It wasn't long ago when government officials were convinced that the market was ready for a new kind of wireless network, which they dubbed WiBro, designed to provide high-speed data services to handsets, computers, homes and offices.

Now, just two-and-a-half years into deployment, WiBro, which is short for "wireless broadband,'' is looking more and more like a monumental letdown everyday.

Desperate to save the WiBro, policymakers recently enabled operators to provide voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services on their networks and pressed them to increase investment.

The problem with the plan is that these are the same companies that are backing alternative mobile-phone services that so far have successfully fended off WiBro's challenge with ease.

"We have no intention of allowing WiBro to fade out when we believe the technology has great potential,'' said Shin Yong-sub, an official of the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), the country's broadcasting and telecommunications regulator.

"If the home-made WiBro goes international, it will bring new opportunities for Korean high-tech firms in royalty payments and equipment sales, and for this to happen, the local market for the service needs to get bigger. Allowing voice is a good way to achieve that and we need operators to renew their commitment and invest more aggressively,'' he said.

WiBro is designed as a predecessor to mobile WiMAX, which is competing with Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology in the fourth-generation (4G) telecommunications race.

The government has been promoting WiBro aggressively in hopes of allowing local companies to drive the standard and capture the benefits of homegrown intellectual property.

However, in a country that boasts one of the most advanced wireless networks in the world, WiBro looks like a solution without a problem. WiBro's struggles are not just a concern for its operators, but for high-tech giants Intel and Samsung Electronics, who are the biggest backers of WiMAX and had hoped WiBro would provide a convincing reference case against LTE in the standards race.

Now, WiBro seems to be mentioned more by LTE supporters, including Ericsson Vice President Jonas Lundstedt, who, in a recent news conference in Seoul, claimed that the experience in Korea indicates that mobile WiMAX is lagging by years.

KT, the country's biggest telephone company and Internet provider, has just 180,000 customers for its WiBro services, while wireless leader, SK Telecom, which had to be dragged into the market by heavy-handed government policies, gathered 11,000 customers through a half-hearted effort.

Around the time of WiBro's commercial launch in June 2006, the state-run Korea Information Society Development Institute (KISDI) predicted the market for the technology would grow to 12.5 trillion won (about $9.2 billion) by 2012.

KCC now says the goal is to reach 330 billion won by then.

Considering that KT and SK Telecom used 790 and 600 billion won, respectively, to build their WiBro networks and each needs to spend between 200 and 400 billion won more to expand coverage, a 300 billion won-plus market after seven years hardly qualifies as a consolation prize.

KCC officials are betting heavily that VoIP could inject new life into WiBro, which appears particularly vulnerable. Jo Young-hoon, a KCC official, says that VoIP WiBro could provide customers with mobile services that are about 30 percent cheaper than current ones.

"We expect commercial services to start in December this year, when consumers will be able to use dual-band, dual-mode handsets that switch between WiBro and existing mobile-phone networks,'' he said.

The WiBro handsets will be given numbers that start with the 010 prefix, used by all three of the country's mobile-phone carriers ― SK Telecom, KTF and LG Telecom.

SK Telecom, which controls more than 50 percent of wireless customers and currently enjoys leadership in the third-generation (3G) market, doesn't like the scenario one bit.

KCC officials recently "recommended'' SK Telecom executives consider allowing VoIP calls on its WiBro handsets, according to government sources, which has the company reacting as if it was robbed of its wallet.

"We would need to invest at least two trillion won more to complete a nationwide WiBro network, and the cheap calls on WiBro handsets will erode our profits by initiating fierce competition,'' said an SK Telecom spokesman.

The idea of allowing VoIP over the WiBro network was first initiated by KT, which looked ready to tap into the mobile telephony market to compensate for its declining fixed-line revenue.

However, with the company expecting to complete its merger with its mobile subsidiary, KTF, during the first-half of the year, KT is suddenly indifferent.

Although KT plans to introduce the services by the end of the year, its level of commitment remains to be seen, as company officials now claim that WiBro should complement existing mobile-phone services, not cannibalize the customer pool.


The arrest of South Korea's financial blogger

FOR several months a blogger going by the name of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, has proved a severe irritant to South Korea’s government. He made several correct financial predictions, such as the Korean won’s sharp decline against the American dollar, and heaped scorn on President Lee Myung-bak and his finance minister, Kang Man-soo, for their handling of the economic crisis. This made him both a household name and a target for official persecution.

Indeed, since January 10th Minerva, who has been revealed to be an unemployed man, Park Dae-sung, has been in detention. Riot police raided his flat, finding the 31-year-old at his screen, surrounded by financial primers. He is under arrest on charges related to a posting on December 29th, asserting that in order to support the won the finance ministry had ordered financial institutions to stop buying American dollars. The ministry denies this, and prosecutors argue that the post contravened so-called “cyber-slander” legislation, and caused so much currency turmoil that the government had to spend the equivalent of $2 billion to support the won. Civic groups and opposition parties, infuriated by this apparent attack on free speech, have vowed to support him.

It is possible that Mr Park is just one of several Minervas. He denies writing a newspaper article published under his pseudonym. Others question whether a man with no formal economic training can grasp financial arcana (though many journalists claim to manage). But, however many Minervas there are, the government’s sledgehammer to the blogger’s nut does nothing to improve Mr Lee’s perceived lack of a common touch.

Mr Park seems to have fallen foul of both the two main causes of official paranoia: the internet and the financial crisis. It has been alarmed about online activism ever since this helped opposition forces organise protests that brought central Seoul to a halt last year. Over the financial crisis, the finance ministry has urged foreign journalists to “care about the Korean people’s psychology” and not use adjectives like “failing”, “desperate” or “jittery” to describe markets. After all, say officials, press and people must stand together “to tackle this giant monster”. As for the ministry’s denial, traders agree that it did not put out an emergency order, as Minerva claimed. But all of the big banks in the foreign-exchange market, they say, were called and urged to curb their dollar purchases.