Saturday, February 28, 2009

Is Hyundai's Black Ink a Trend?

U.S. car sales plunged to a 27-year low in January, dragging down Detroit's Shrunken Three and even mighty Toyota Motor (TM). But one automaker has bucked the trend: Hyundai Motor. The Korean company, whose name was once synonymous with cheap, logged a 14% sales gain in what was a dismal month for almost every other carmaker.

It's too soon to say whether that marks the start of a trend that could see Hyundai emerge from the shadow of its larger Japanese rivals, Toyota and Honda Motor (HMC). For one thing, the jump owes much to Hyundai's 22% drop in sales in January 2008. And the company has piled on the discounts. Incentives on its Sonata sedan, Santa Fe SUV, and other models average $2,611 per vehicle—about triple those of a year ago. Faced with bloated inventory at its single U.S. factory in Montgomery, Ala., Hyundai has scaled back production there and is unloading cars on rental-car agencies: Nearly 30% of the 24,500 vehicles it sold in January went to such fleet buyers at virtually no profit.

Hyundai can afford to sell its cars on the cheap, at least for a while. Its balance sheet is far healthier than those of its Detroit peers. And it's getting a big lift from the weak won. The Korean currency has dropped by nearly a third against the dollar in the past year, so Hyundai pockets more cash from each car it sells in the U.S. Toyota and Honda, on the other hand, are seeing their earnings wiped out by a yen that is hovering at a 13-year high. Brokerage Korea Investment & Securities figures more than half of Hyundai's projected $1.5 billion profit in 2009 will come from the favorable exchange rate. "The currency swing has been a godsend for Hyundai," says Park Kyung Min, chief executive of Seoul fund manager Hangaram Investment Management.

The Korean automaker is plowing a good chunk of that windfall into marketing. On Jan. 3 it kicked off a program that lets customers who finance their purchase return the car and have the loan canceled with no hit to their credit rating. Detroit is taking notice. "We may all have to get more creative than we have been to deal with low consumer confidence," says Ford Motor's (F) marketing chief, James Farley.

To lure more Americans into its showrooms, Hyundai is spending heavily to buy its way into their living rooms. The carmaker forked over millions of dollars for three Super Bowl spots, including a pair extolling its new Genesis, which captured the prestigious North American Car of the Year award at this year's Detroit auto show. It has also shelled out to share airtime with Hollywood's glitterati: The carmaker bought TV time during the Academy Awards after Ford and General Motors (GM) pulled out. "It's important to keep our foot on the gas even in a down economy," says Joel Ewanick, Hyundai's U.S. marketing boss.

The aggressive push, though, could backfire on Hyundai. If it doesn't pare back fleet sales, the carmaker could dent the resale value of its autos, because rental vehicles typically end up on used-car lots within two years. And the expensive marketing will erode margins once Korea's won starts to strengthen again. It will take more than a single month of industry-beating numbers to prove that Hyundai has its formula right.


Google is not having much luck in South Korea

In South Korea people who want to look something up on the internet don’t “Google it”. Instead they “ask Naver”. Among the 35m South Koreans who use the internet every day, the nine-year-old search engine is wildly popular, accounting for 76% of internet searches, compared with less than 3% each for Yahoo! and Google.

Naver owes its popularity, in part, to the fact that it is not just a search engine. Like Yahoo!, it is also a portal, drawing together news, e-mail, discussion groups, stockmarket information, videos, restaurant reviews and so on. Some 17m people visit its home-page every day and since January they have been able to customise it according to their own tastes.

But Naver is also dominant—too dominant, say some—because it caters to the interests of South Koreans. “Yahoo! and Google have a very American, English-based search engine,” says Chae Hwi-Young, the chief executive of NHN, Naver’s parent company. If you go to Google and type in “rain”, for example, the result is lots of pages about water falling from the sky. In South Korea, however, it makes more sense to return pages, as Naver does, about a popular singer and actor called Rain.

Naver pioneered the idea of presenting search results from several categories—web pages, images, videos, books—on the same page, something that Google later adopted. Another popular feature is Naver’s “Knowledge Search” service, launched in 2002. It enables people to ask questions, the answers to which are served up from a database provided by other users. If an answer is incomplete or inaccurate, it can be easily changed, Wikipedia-style, for the benefit of others who ask the same question in future. A points system rewards users who submit questions, provide answers or rate the answers provided by other people.

On February 4th NHN announced record sales and profits for 2008, becoming the first South Korean internet company to record sales of more than 1 trillion won ($660m). Such is Naver’s grip on the market that Yahoo! and Google have just agreed to combine some of their services in South Korea, in order to give them greater clout against the local giant.

Although Google is having trouble making any headway in South Korea, it may have more of a chance in China, where the market leader, Baidu, has been hit by a series of scandals. Last September, at the height of the scandal over melamine-tainted milk, rumours began to spread that Baidu had accepted payment to expunge stories on the subject from its search results. Baidu denied any wrongdoing. A few weeks later the firm was accused of giving prominence in its search results, in return for payment, to unlicensed drugs companies.

This led to speculation in the local media that web users might be turning against Baidu. Whether or not this is true, it does not help that unlike Google and other rivals, Baidu does not distinguish in search results between paid links (ie, advertisements) and unpaid ones—a practice that was criticised in a report by CCTV, a state-run broadcaster, in November.

As Chinese web users become more sophisticated, they may be gaining a preference for search results that are separate from advertising, which could benefit Google. Advertisers, at least, seem to be switching: the most recent figures suggest that Google increased its market share of internet advertising by 4.4 percentage points during 2008, compared with Baidu’s 2.9 percentage points. Baidu has announced plans to delineate more clearly between paid and unpaid links, and has removed links to unlicensed providers of drugs and medical care from its index.

In the Japanese market, meanwhile, Google plays second fiddle to Yahoo! Japan, despite frantic efforts to catch up by launching more Japan-specific services. It will soon face a new rival, in the form of Naver, which has decided to enter the Japanese market on the basis that Japan, like South Korea, has a unique and distinctive culture and language. After eight years studying and collecting data on Japanese tastes, Mr Chae is confident that Naver can become the leading search engine in Japan—despite the failure of his firm’s previous foray into the country, selling search services to companies.

After that, Mr Chae says he plans to launch several more culturally specific search engines, such as “Naver California”, “Naver Korean-American” or “Naver Chinese-American”. That would be attacking Google on its home turf. Is this too ambitious? Naver say never.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cool digital book on visiting Korea

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

For a New Generation, Kimchi Goes With Tacos

AS the sun begins to sink behind the Santa Monica Mountains and the northbound traffic thickens on the 405 freeway, the hungry refresh their browsers.

After obsessively checking the Twitter postings of the Korean taco maker to see where the truck will park next, they begin lining up — throngs of college students, club habitués, couples on dates and guys having conversations about spec scripts.

And they wait, sometimes well beyond an hour, all for the pleasure of spicy bites of pork, chicken or tofu soaked in red chili flake vinaigrette, short ribs doused in sesame-chili salsa roja or perhaps a blood sausage sautéed with kimchi, all of it wrapped in a soft taco shell.

The food at Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go, the taco vendor that has overtaken Los Angeles, does not fit into any known culinary category. One man overheard on his cellphone as he waited in line on a recent night said it best: “It’s like this Korean Mexican fusion thing of crazy deliciousness.”

The truck is a clear cult hit in Los Angeles, drawing more buzz than any new restaurant. A sister vehicle and a taco stand within a Culver City bar were recently added to quell the crowds, which Kogi’s owner put at about 400 customers a night.

Kogi, the brainchild of two chefs, has entered the city’s gastro-universe at just the right moment. Its tacos and burritos are recession-friendly at $2 a pop. The truck capitalizes on emerging technology by sending out Twitter alerts so fans know where to find it at any given time.
Yet Kogi’s popularity and the sophistication of its street food also demonstrate the emerging firepower of this city’s Korean food purveyors.

In the last few years, second-generation Korean Angelenos and more recent immigrants have played their own variations on their traditional cuisine and taken it far beyond the boundaries of Korean-dominated neighborhoods. These chefs and entrepreneurs are fueled in large part by tech-boom money here and in South Korea, culinary-school educations and in some cases, their parents’ shifting perspectives about the profession of cooking. In the last year, new Korean restaurants have popped up on the powerhouse restaurant strips of Washington Boulevard in Culver City and Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood. In an area of West Los Angeles dominated by Japanese restaurants, bibimbop has joined the fray.

“We thought Korean food was under-represented here, and we were right,” said Robert Benson, the executive chef of Gyenari in Culver City, who has two Korean partners. “There is a certain mysticism to Korean food, and we have tried to make it more accessible.”

Korean food has blipped on the radar of culinary trend watchers before, but it never seems to gain momentum. In part, Mr. Benson said: “It is because there is a misconception about Korean food. Japanese food is high protein, low in fat and is this very clean cuisine, where Korean food has reputation as being not healthy. So it has not taken off like it should, but I think it is going to. I can feel the groundswell.David Chang in New York” — the Korean-American chef whose inventions include oysters on the half shell with kimchi consommé — “has helped that, too. I don’t think it will be long before we see a P. F. Chang’s-type chain of Korean food.”

At the same time, an increasing number of Korean chefs and restaurateurs here have aligned themselves with other nations’ cuisines, to great acclaim.

One of the city’s hottest hamburger spots, Father’s Office, is owned by Sang Yoon, 39, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Korea when he was a year old. He cooked at Michael’s in Santa Monica before taking over an old bar nearby, now packed with people willing enough to wait in line for an Office Burger, served with Mr. Yoon’s choice of accompaniments (caramelized onions, blue cheese, Gruyère, arugula), not theirs. A second Father’s Office recently opened in Los Angeles.

Scoops, an artisanal ice cream store in East Hollywood that whips up strawberry balsamic vinegar and brown bread treats, is run by Tai Kim, who came with his family to California from Korea as a teenager. Korean-Americans have made their mark in the frozen-yogurt trade, too. Pinkberry? Red Mango? Check, check.

“The first generation of Korean immigrants here mainly catered toward a Korean clientele, or made grocery markets catering to a minority clientele,” said Edward Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside. “But more recent immigrants have ethnic and capital resources that enable them to branch out in the mainstream economy.”

Thus, “Korean-Americans have gained visibility since the unrest of 1992,” when riots targeted Korean-owned businesses, he said, “and over the last 10 to 15 years, they became much more visible. In terms of economic and political spheres, they are forces to be reckoned with.”

At the California School of Culinary Arts over the last two years, Korean students have been one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups, said Mario Novo, a spokesman for the school.

“One of our brand new students told me how excited he was to go to the school because in his culture the men do not cook and his mother was fighting against him,” Mr. Novo said. “Until they saw how serious he was. Now his mother is coming around.”

The Korean taco truck may be the ultimate outgrowth of the evolving Korean-American culture and inventiveness, inspired in part, like so many entrepreneurial adventures, by a bit of desperation.

This past September, the chef Roy Choi, 38, who began his career at Le Bernardin in New York and worked as the chef in several Los Angeles restaurants, including RockSugar, found himself out of a job and running out of cash. He had coffee with Mark Manguera, a former co-worker, who suggested that they operate a taco cart with a Korean twist.

At home that night, Mr. Choi said, the idea, which had sounded half crazy in the morning, began to make some sense. “I have always been searching for a way of trying to express myself,” he said. A business model with seven partners was quickly formed. The marketing plan included putting someone in charge of social networking, through which Kogi got its initial publicity when the truck first rolled out, two months after the fateful coffee date.

Then there is Mr. Choi, who called himself “the angry chef.” He works every night with about five employees who squeeze into the tiny, pristine space, clowns-in-a-car style, grilling meats and whipping up sauces for the crowds who wait, sometimes as long as two hours, for their tacos.

The idea, Mr. Choi said, was to bring his ethnic background together with the sensibility and geography of Los Angeles, where Koreatown abuts Latino-dominated neighborhoods in midcity and where food cultures have long merged. Former Mexican restaurants, now Korean, serve burritos, and Mexican workers populate the kitchens of Korean restaurants.

“We tried to marry two cultures,” Mr. Choi said, “with this crazy idea of putting Korean barbecue meat inside a tortilla. We have never tried to make it any more pretentious or different from that, and we wanted to be very simple but delicious.” To that end, Mr. Choi said, he buys from the meat purveyors used by some of the city’s high-end restaurants and scours the farmers’ markets for the best vegetables.

The whole operation is part culinary event — the delicious tang of pickled cabbage, the melt-on-the tongue caramel of seared meats, the bite of red chili flakes and jalapeños — and part party. Mr. Choi likes to park his truck at the U.C.L.A. campus and outside bars and clubs around town, to take advantage of the street theater.

This week, his team began leasing space in the Alibi Room, a lounge in Culver City, serving up kimchi sesame quesadillas ($7) and hot dogs with kimchi sauerkraut and Korean ketchup.
“It has evolved into a socio-cultural thing for me,” he said. “It is my vision of L.A. in one bite.”


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

South Korea police to block mobile phone signals near ATMs

The police are planning to block the use of cellphones near cash machines to prevent telephone-based financial fraud known as voice-phishing, officials said yesterday.

Senior citizens, who frequently have little knowledge about online financial processes, are often tricked by phone calls telling them to go to an ATM and transfer money.

The defrauders usually claim to be officials of the police, prosecution, financial institutes, post office or tax agencies, and urge the receiver to check his or her account for any personal information leakage.

"We expect a visible decrease in voice phishing crimes by stopping people from using cellphones around ATMs," said an official of the National Police Agency. "In order to minimize general inconvenience, we will limit the cellphone block to two to three meters in front of each machine."

The police will send an official document to the Japanese Embassy, requesting assistance in the introduction of the system, which has been adopted for a while in Japan, officials said. In Japan, electronic devices are attached to ATMs to sense the electromagnetic waves from cellphones and stop any phone conversations in the surrounding area.

Officials will also seek cooperation from local banks to modify their ATMs as to send out voice messages to remind users of the dangers of voice phishing, especially when the user has chosen to transfer money out of the account.

"We need cooperation from banks and mobile carriers in order to prevent voice phishing crimes," said a police official. "They generally agree on the need to protect their customers from fraud."

Many citizens agree that warning messages should be more visible.

"I have heard about voice phishing on the news, but when I actually received one of those calls, I almost gave out my account number," said Kim Soo-hyun, a housewife living in Seoul. "It has become even harder to distinguish these voice phishing calls as they are no longer made by foreigners in inarticulate Korean."

With voice phishing on the increase, the National Tax Service last Thursday warned tax payers about calls asking for an account number to pay the oil tax refund into.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

North Korea: In the court of King Kim

The dictator’s bluster falls on deaf ears in South Korea and, worse still, in America.

If his spooks in Seoul dare tell him the truth, then North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Il, knows that all his threats against South Korea and its president, Lee Myung-bak, have made little impression. Since his inauguration a year ago, Mr Lee has made it clear that he will engage properly with the North only when it really begins to dismantle its nuclear capability.

The stand has infuriated Mr Kim. For months he has abused the South Korean government. He has threatened it with “all-out confrontation”. In December North Korea expelled most South Korean officials from the Kaesong industrial complex, a symbol of economic co-operation. In late January it repudiated a 1991 agreement on reconciliation, non-aggression and co-operation between the Koreas. It says it will no longer honour the western maritime boundary between the two countries, known as the northern limit line, long disputed by the North. This week South Korea’s press reported that the North Korea seemed to be making preparations to test-fire its Taepodong-2 missile, whose theoretical range of 6,700 kilometres (4,200 miles) would reach Alaska.

In a televised discussion, Mr Lee dismissed the threats as “not new”. Ordinary South Koreans seem equally impassive, although South Korea’s navy takes seriously the possibility of another clash in the Yellow Sea—the last, deadly, one was in 2002. Choi Kang at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, a think-tank, predicts that the North will test South Korean resolve to defend the northern limit line.

Mr Kim’s bluster is probably intended more for an American audience than a South Korean one—as well as for his own people. After an illness last year, the 66-year-old may want to show his grip on the country. Rallying North Korea’s army to his side by (verbally) attacking South Korea is an old trick of Mr Kim’s. What is more, says Ren Xiao of Fudan University in Shanghai, North Korea feels “marginalised” by America, as President Barack Obama’s new administration gets to grips with a daunting agenda. Through brinkmanship, says Mr Ren, North Korea is reminding America of its existence and, it thinks, putting pressure on it to change its supposedly hostile policy. If there is one thing the tinpot dictatorship hates, it is to be ignored.

Like any thrower of hissy fits, the North can switch on the charm, too. At a banquet in Pyongyang last month for a big Chinese Communist Party cheese, Mr Kim assured his guest that he was making efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.

Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, now at the Asan Institute, a think-tank, says that this behaviour is to be expected. North Korea regularly seeks to show a smiling face to China and America, while keeping a stern one for the South. It is incensed that Mr Lee’s administration will not discuss honouring inter-Korean agreements signed by Mr Kim when he met with then South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, in 2000 and 2007 respectively.

Both these presidents were also the targets of abuse at the start of their five-year terms, before historic meetings with the Dear Leader. Mr Lee may yet have such a summit too. For now, time is on his side. Last month he named Hyun In-taek, the architect of his tougher strategy towards North Korea, to run the unification ministry, which traditionally conciliates the North. The president promises massive aid and investment, with the aim of raising North Korean income per head to $3,000 a year within a decade, if only the North gives up its atom bombs. As Mr Lee sees it, the ball is firmly in Mr Kim’s court.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

South Koreans mourn death of spiritual leader Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan

Thursday, February 12, 2009

South Korea cuts key interest rate amid recession fears

South Korea's central bank Thursday cut its key interest rate by 50 basis points to a record low 2.0 percent as the nation struggles to avert its first recession for a decade.

The Bank of Korea reduced the benchmark seven-day repo rate at its monthly policy meeting. The rate has now been cut by 3.25 percentage points since last October.

The cut comes two days after new finance minister Yoon Jeung-Hyun warned that Asia's fourth largest economy will probably shrink two percent this year, the first annual contraction since the East Asian financial crisis in 1998.

Yoon, who also forecast job losses of around 200,000 this year, said the government would submit a supplementary budget to parliament by the end of March to try to stimulate domestic spending.

A series of recent grim economic figures shows the export-driven economy headed for recession as overseas demand for its ships, autos, microchips and electronics products dries up.

The economy shrank 5.6 percent quarter-on-quarter in the last three months of 2008, the largest contraction since the first quarter of 1998.

Exports in January dropped by a third year-on-year, the steepest decline since Seoul started announcing monthly tallies in 1980.

The economy shed more than 100,000 jobs in the year to January as the global economic downturn worsened, the biggest contraction for over five years.

The International Monetary Fund predicted that the economy will shrink four percent this year before rebounding in 2010.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

South Korea's burgeoning handheld device culture

A woman dressed in a fashionable outfit reaches into her purse to pull out a mobile phone that is buzzing excitedly. She puts it up to her ear and begins to talk as she descends, a little precariously, into the depths of a subway station; she has no fear or concern her conversation will be cut short even while riding the subway. Her confidence in her cell service proves to be well-founded as she steps onto a subway car -- conversation uninterrupted -- that whisks her through the winding tunnels beneath layers of concrete, earth, and asphalt.

On that subway car, a teenage boy dressed in a conservative school uniform is immersed in the live TV program he is watching on his own cell phone. The middle-aged man sitting next to him might ordinarily be watching that program at home, but instead, he is focused on blasting the alien creatures that swarm on the screen of his Playstation Portable (PSP). In fact, many other riders on the subway today are interacting with handheld electronic devices that come in a dizzying array of colors, sizes, and shapes.

For a Western visitor, visiting Seoul for the first time might induce a 21st-century version of culture shock. For while he or she may be prepared for differences in language and custom by the benefit of being well-traveled, few things can prepare such a visitor for the advanced stage of the gadget culture in Korea. Many of the nation's nearly 50 million persons take technologies for granted that would astound a typical visitor, such as paying for snacks at a 7-Eleven with a cell phone instead of a credit card.

Led by technological giants like Samsung and LG, Koreans have become accustomed to new and exciting gadgets introduced on an almost continual basis. Consumers here have access to all kinds of devices and technology that would boggle the minds of many foreigners. One can't help but wonder why are such gadgets and devices so popular among Koreans in particular? What is feeding this frenzy of gadget culture? The scenes on subways and buses in Korea strikingly different compared with those other big cities around the world. With regard to the latter, you may occasionally spot young people watching a video on their iPods, but most likely your fellow travelers will simply be using them to listen to music. In Korea -- Seoul to be precise -- however, at any given moment, it is possible to witness young people and older middle-aged people alike engrossed in watching a TV show. It has, in fact, become quite common to observe people of all ages playing sophisticated games on their cell phones as well.

So, what exactly is the driving force behind this obsession? Is it a question of vanity that spawns the desire to flaunt the latest, most expensive gadget to appear in the stores? Or, is it a question of the easily accessible high-speed Internet and the ease of sharing music and movie files on-line? Could it be the heavy investment in information technology and the popular willingness to quickly conform with the latest advance? Or, is it simply a way of coping with the long commutes, with one-quarter of the entire population of South Korea concentrated in Seoul and its close vicinity? There is no single reason, but a combination of all these factors contributes an environment that encourages a robust gadget culture.

Many visitors are surprised to discover that Korea has the highest broadband penetration rate in the world, with about 90 percent of the population having access. Vast numbers of Korean consumers connect with each other via both mobile handsets and full-sized PCs. What's more, Korea pays the lowest rates for its broadband while enjoying one of the fastest average speeds. A typical broadband connection in Korea delivers data at between 50 and 100 megabits per second (as opposed to a typical speed of 1.5 megabits per second in the United States). The cheap rates make it possible for more than three-quarters of Korean households to deploy a rapid broadband connection.

This kind of high-speed Internet environment is highly conducive to downloading music, movies and the latest "dramas" (short episodic soap operas that are equally popular among the young and the old) in a relatively short time. Even if one is away from home, but need to access to the Internet, no problem! Just pop in any of the numerous Starbucks coffee shops in Korea, and you can easily get hassle-free wireless Internet service for your notebook computer or other Wi-Fi device without the use of subscriptions or logins. If the Internet wasn't this easily accessible or widespread, it's doubtful that portable devices such as PSPs would have become as popular as they are today.

Aside from enjoying fast and easy Internet connection, another major contributing factor may be the myriad "share sites" that exist. Koreans habitually upload the latest episode of a drama or interesting TV show that they viewed just a few hours prior; recent movies that played in theaters, the hottest popular music, computer software just to name a few of the items that are available for consumption on these sites. Perhaps it is the lax laws regulating sharing and swapping content compared to other countries, but Korean Internet users (known as netizens), share just about anything with each other. With so much rich content available, from the user-created content (UCC) videos that took Korea by storm in 2006 to Cyworld mini-homepages (Korea's home-grown version of Facebook and MySpace that already had enjoyed a large on-line audience years before either of these sites became the sensations they are today) to the various blog sites competing for attention and traffic, all help drive the Korean appetite for gadgets that allow them to consume this content.

Of course, the biggest reason may simply be the massive investment in advanced technology and its support by both the private and public sectors. One such technology that has helped to create the "device culture" is Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB), which allows cell phones and other portable devices to pick up TV broadcasts sent on special frequencies. Cell phones equipped with this function have been available since May 2005, at which time Korea became the first country where it is possible to receive digital TV broadcasting in this manner.

There are two types of DMB service -- satellite-based and terrestrial DMB. As the names suggest, the biggest differences between the two are where the broadcast signals are transmitted from and the cost. There is a monthly fee (about 13,000 won) for the satellite-based DMB while ground-based broadcasts are provided free of charge to anyone who has a receiver attached to the device. One might wonder, then, why would anyone want to pay for such a service when they could get something similar for free. The answer concerns user preferences and geographic location. Satellite-based DMB offers more variety of video and radio channels, thirteen and twenty-six respectively, as well as providing uniform service nationwide. TU Media, a company created from various business entities within SK Telecom (Korea's leading mobile carrier and the sole owner of the satellite deployed for this service), is the only company that provides satellite-based DMB.

On the other hand, terrestrial DMB is restricted to Seoul and its vicinity for now, with significantly fewer channels (seven video and ten radio channels), than satellite-based DMB. However, one advantage of this service is that it offers real-time TV broadcasts from the three major TV networks in Korea while satellite-based DMB cannot retransmit in real-time, but rather can only show reruns of the ground-based broadcasts because of restrictions put forth by the major broadcasters. Thus, one must decide which network -- and its offerings -- one wishes to choose when buying a DMB phone. However, that will change next year thanks to a new agreement drawn up by the two different DMB service entities. Consumers will soon be able to access both networks from one cell phone device, perhaps as early as the first quarter of 2009.
The six terrestrial DMB companies have come to an agreement with SK Telecom, to share their networks as a joint effort to promote DMB service. As a result, one of the features that may benefit users will be real-time traffic updates via satellite-based network as the user watches terrestrial DMB. This integration is predicted to bring in extra revenue for terrestrial DMB providers, which have been struggling due to a less-than-profitable business model.

The average price of a DMB cell phone starts from 600,000 won. Regardless of its rather steep price tag, it is not unusual to see these high-tech cell phones just about everywhere you go in Korea -- especially during commute hours on subways and buses. Before DMB service started, the sole way to view TV on a handheld device was on the small screen of a mobile phone.
Nowadays, though, cool gadgets such as specialized DMB players are far more common for TV and movie-viewing than mobile phones. DMB players typically feature chic designs and offer hip features at lower prices than an integrated DMB handset, which has rendered the former considerably more appealing.


Friday, February 06, 2009

Analysis: Few details on U.S. North Korea policy

President Barack Obama already has senior envoys working on crises in South Asia and the Middle East. The new administration has said little, however, about how it will handle a standoff with an increasingly hostile, nuclear-armed North Korea.

The North does not like being ignored by the United States, which the Bush administration was reminded of in 2006 when Pyongyang quickly moved itself up the list of top U.S. foreign policy problems by staging nuclear and missile tests.

North Korea is again showing signs of restlessness, and its belligerence toward its Asian neighbors could escalate should Pyongyang see a lack of U.S. attention or urgency.

In recent days, the North has pledged to scrap pacts designed to prevent hostilities with South Korea and apparently is preparing to test-fire a ballistic missile capable of striking the western United States.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to name a special representative for North Korea, but the timing is uncertain. She also has not yet named other top officials for Asia.

An absence of U.S. leadership is potentially risky, according to John Bolton, George W. Bush's U.N. envoy and a strident critic of what he sees as lenient U.S. policy toward North Korea.

"Neglecting North Korea is a dangerous gamble with very high stakes," Bolton wrote in a recent opinion piece.

So far, the State Department has provided few details about the future of North Korean nuclear efforts. Clinton has praised the Bush administration's use of six-nation disarmament talks, which are now stalled over North Korea's refusal to agree to a nuclear verification process, but she has said little else.

Still, Clinton will be sending an important message by making her first visit abroad to Asia. She will travel this month to Japan, South Korea and China three nations that, along with the United States and Russia, are pressing the North to abandon its bombs. Although North Korea will feature prominently in Clinton's meetings, it will be one of many topics, including climate change and tensions over natural resources, trade and Taiwan.

The naming of an envoy would be a break from the Bush administration, which called upon the heads of the State Department's East Asian affairs bureau to negotiate with the North. The Clinton administration used special envoys.

The return of a high-level special envoy dedicated to the time-consuming nuclear talks would allow the assistant secretary of state for East Asia to deal with parts of the region that have often felt neglected during Washington's push to settle a North Korean deal.

Michael Green, a former Bush administration Asia adviser, said the assistant secretary for East Asia has "become the North Korea desk officer. It's too much to ask one person to do both jobs."

The current top diplomat for East Asia, Christopher Hill, in a recent interview with The Associated Press, defended the focus on North Korea.

"In this line of work, when you're confronted with an urgent problem versus an important problem, you focus on the urgent," said Hill, the leading candidate to become the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq. "So I can't say I would do it differently, but, certainly, any time you spend a lot of time on an urgent problem, you're not spending time on other problems."

Clinton has yet to name her assistant secretary for East Asia but is expected to choose an Asia adviser from her husband's administration, Kurt Campbell.

The delay in naming a special envoy for North Korea could be because of a need to make sure the person chosen can work well with Campbell, especially if the envoy should be ordered to report to Clinton and Obama, and not to Campbell. Any friction between the assistant secretary and the envoy could complicate diplomatic efforts.

Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank, said Campbell has close ties with Clinton and, therefore, will feel free "to walk into her office and say we need to coordinate a little better."

Any North Korea envoy, Cossa said, "will know Kurt has that special relationship with Clinton." ◦

Monday, February 02, 2009

South Korean killer reignites death row debate

Amid a serial murder scandal that is shaking the country, voices are calling for the revival of capital punishment, which has been unused for the past few years.

Amnesty International, a human rights group, classified Korea as "abolitionist in practice" in 2007 because the country has not executed anyone in the past 12 years, though capital punishment is still valid.

Capital punishment in Korea was last carried out under the Kim Young-sam government on Dec. 20, 1997 when 23 people were executed.

Presently, 58 are on death row, theoretically awaiting execution, and 19 are serving life sentences after receiving commutation, according to the Justice Ministry.

As the police yesterday rounded off the crime scene investigation regarding serial killer Kang Ho-soon who admitted to killing seven women in the past two years, many are demanding that Kang be sentenced to death.

During the two-day crime scene investigation, Kang calmly demonstrated his crimes without signs of regret or agitation, said witnesses at the scene. Family members of his victims are swearing fierce resistance should the judiciary fail to condemn the murderer to an appropriate sentence.

If accusations against Kang turn out to be true, present criminal law provides that he be handed down the maximum legal sentence. Murder, when combined with rape, is subject to the death penalty or life imprisonment, with corpse abandonment adding another seven years.

A well-known serial killer, Yoo Young-chul, was given a death sentence in 2005 for killing 20 people, tearing their bodies to pieces and burying them. Another murderer, Chung Nam-gyu, was also given the sentence in 2007 for killing 13 people and injuring 20.

The Justice Ministry is skeptical about carrying out the irrevocable criminal sentence, despite mounting public requests.

"In the past scandalous serial murder cases, public opinion also demanded the death of the killers, but it was just not enough to resist the worldwide legal trend of capital punishment abolishment," said a Justice Ministry official. "The very nature of the death sentence is controversial, and Kang's case alone will probably not reverse the present flow of criminal punishment."

Yoo and Chung have been imprisoned for several years as their death sentences have not been carried out.

As of December 2007, 102 countries have abolished the death sentence and 31, including Korea, are classified as "abolitionist in practice," according to figures from the AI. Only 64 countries actually execute the maximum criminal penalty.

Those who sympathize with the ministry's stance point out the global trend against capital punishment, the possibility of judicial misjudgment and the value of human life.

The majority of the public, however, claim that the rights of innocent people should be prioritized.

"Legal authorities will be criticized as populist, should they refuse to sentence Kang Ho-soon to death, citing human rights as reasons," said Gyeonggi Governor Kim Moon-soo in a radio interview yesterday.

Criminal statistics from the Justice Ministry also showed a 32 percent increase in murder rates in the 10 years since the government's de facto abolition of the death sentence.

Some say that the government should stop wasting taxes by indefinitely delaying the execution of those condemned to death.

According to government data presented to Rep. Joo Kwang-deok of the ruling Grand National Party during a parliamentary audit last year, the state spends an annual 1.59 million won ($1,100) to keep a condemned criminals in prison.

Amid rising disputes over capital punishment, one of the oldest punishments in history, the Constitutional Court is to hold an open discussion on the legitimacy of the death sentence in June.


Beauty finds a way to buck the recession in South Korea

In tough times people resort to small luxuries to compensate for letting go of big-budget plans or hobbies like traveling.

For example, two of the country's popular cosmetic brands, Amore Pacific and LG Household & Health Care, said recently that their third quarter sales rose 15.6 percent and 29.8 percent, respectively, from a year earlier.

However, it does not hurt to be thrifty in these times, especially if the quality of a product is guaranteed. Such consumer mentality explains the success of a growing number of cosmetic brands that are selling exclusively on home shopping channels. Some of them are selling like hotcakes because, even though they are cheaper at about 100,000 won a kit, their quality is also ensured by those who make them.

Most of these brands are collaborations between top-notch make-up artists and leading local mid-sized manufacturers, including Aekyung Industries Inc. and Enprani Corporation.

One such successful TV home shopping cosmetic brand is LUNA, created by a partnership between top make-up artist Cho Sung-ah and Aekyung Industries Inc., a well-known home, health and beauty goods production company. LUNA, launched in 2006, is also the first to tap that particular market.

"LUNA was top-ranked in sales among all products sold on GS Homeshopping during the last year. We sold more than 400,000 cosmetic sets," said a spokesperson for GS Homeshopping.

SEP (Simple, Easy and Perfect) joined the market early last year, but is quickly catching up with LUNA. SEP was established by leading make-up artist duo Son Dae-sik and Park Tae-yoon with cosmetics company Enprani Corp.

"Through combining the experience of Son and Park and Enprani's expertise in cosmetics production, we have created a nice teamwork which is appealing to women in their 20s," said an Enprani spokesperson.

Both LUNA and SEP emphasize their convenience and simplicity. Besides the instructions that are enclosed in their products, which often come in complete sets, consumers can catch demonstrations by the make-up artists themselves on TV.

Instead of just selling the products to the consumers, the artists aim at enabling ordinary women to do their make-up well and fast, the Aekyung official said.

"Basically, a set enables beginners like me to finish make-up by just following the guidelines. The kit has everything I need," said Lee Na-yeon, a 24-year-old student.

These brands have also been timely in presenting seasonally suitable products while challenging standard cosmetic products by coming up with unique items.

Under the concept of "Noble Make-up," a trend young Korean women are avidly following nowadays, Son and Park duo have recently presented a cosmetics kit that includes mineral loose powder foundation. CJ Homeshopping sold over 70,000 of them translating into over 7 billion won in sales.

LUNA also has been constantly renewing its line-up of products according to different themes, such as "Baby-face" "Small face" and "Three-dimensional."

"The kit keeps evolving as time passes, adapting to the consumers' needs," said Yoo Hye-mi, 27.

Some items from LUNA have received wild responses from buyers for their creativity. They include "Brush Foundation," a foundation that has a brush attached to it and "Cheek & Eye Print," a stamp-like blush and eye-shadow shaped like those of the cheek and the eye.

LICHT, created by model/actress Byun Jung-soo and KAREN, launched by popular make-up artist Kim Sun-jin, were also introduced on CJ Homeshopping last year and have been enjoying robust sales.


Korean Economic Statistics (Jan 2009)


Sunday, February 01, 2009

Drifting the Hyundai Genesis - 2009 Super Bowl Shoot