Surfing the web in South Korea

As we all know, South Korea is famous for its Internet landscape: high adoption rates and high bandwidth. However, on browsing the web in South Korea I have some mixed feelings. Of course the speed is very high. Up- and downloading speed is very high. Even higher than my subscription (one of the fastest available from UPC)  in the Netherlands. However, the speed at YU considerably slower. In the Netherlands, in my experience, speed at universities are higher than in regular homes.

The websites in South Korea have an altogether different feel, appearance (whatchamacallit)  than western web pages. Important is of course the Hangeul character set. These characters seem to make the design more delicate. This is enhanced by the use of light and pastel colours on the page. Furthermore the pages often have some animation as the builds up quickly. See for instance these pages of YeungNam University, Lotte department store, and Ohmynews.

Unfortunately, there is a big problem, especially for people coming from abroad. All websites and computers are totally dedicated to Microsoft. First of all, you will not find any other browser than Internet Explorer. While the European Union forces Microsoft to show all different browsers while starting up the newly bought computer, in South Korea you are forced to use Internet Explorer. Without it you will not venture far in Korean cyberspace. Not only that, the dominant IE version is 6,  whereas Internet Explorer 8 is already released some time ago. There is an important reason for this: it turns out many Korean websites use ‘Active X’ controls for loading apps into the browser. Because it is not supported for other browsers, people only can use IE. Apart from this, ‘Active X’ is been said to suffer from security issues.

Coming to South Korea, oblivious of this issue and assuming browsing is browsing, using Firefox became quite frustrating. Gmail simply didn’t work on my university computer: I’d see my list of emails but was not able to open any of them. So what do you do when you’re an avid Firefox user with many add-ons installed, do you switch to Internet Explorer? I didn’t. Why? Well, when using Internet Explorer for all more special navigation activities, I was asked to install all kind of ActiveX things. What they were I still don’t know, because it was in Korean. My colleagues at YU assured me it was OK to install them. Also, it appears slow, and has little additional functionality. So, I decided to abort the use of IE altogether. Now, I use Google Chrome, and it works fine but not perfect. OK it’s lightweight, but little additional functionality. And in South Korea it is also a bit buggy: sometimes, I navigate to another website by clicking a link, which is not an uncommon thing to do. Then, Chrome tells me the link is broken. Oh? Then, copy-pasting the URL in the address bar subsequently shows no problems with the link whatsoever.

So, I still miss my Firefox, especially because of some essential Firefox add-ons, such as Zotero, Delicious, Downthemall! and Mouse-gestures. I hope for the Korean people and for researchers in general things change rapidly, because although Korea is famous for its Internet speed and Internet adoption, it is also infamous for the Microsoft monopoly.

Mobile phones in South Korea

Mobile phones are quite pervasive in South Korea. OK, being on the move and still be able to phone others or be phoned is the first principle of having a mobile. Or is it? Well, using the mobile phone in South Korea goes well beyond phoning home. Korean mobiles are all capable of accessing the Internet. The mobile (Samsung SPH-W8350) I bought for my stay can navigate all sites without a problem. And it’s very flashy, a thing Koreans like a lot, given their extensive use of flashy neon displays in the streets. The only problem with this phone is flash video, but even the IPhone has a problem with flash video. Furthermore it has many features a smart phone would be proud off.

The price of 80,000 Won combined with a subscription of 20,000 Won per month shows this is a very reasonable price. That is, compared to the Netherlands. They, my students at Yeungnam University,  however mentioned this is an expensive one. So, I should switch to another provider after three months. What? OK, so the phone and the subscription are quite cheap, and I can switch after three months already? In the Netherlands, when you take a combination offer of a mobile phone and a subscription you need to stay at least 12 to 24 months. A few reasons these phones and subscriptions are that cheap probably have to do with the enormous market and fierce competition. This means that the profit can be relatively low. Furthermore, a few of the largest producers of mobile phones are Korean, such as Samsung and LG. As such import taxes don’t apply for the home market.

OK, prices aside, phones are also used for payments. Phones with a special T-money card can be (re)charged at charge stations. Swiping the phone near a receiver deducts money from the card and ergo you’ve paid. You can also pay with T-money cards, but that’s not as sexy as a paying with your mobile.

Korean phones are quite distinctive when you see them. Not so much by their shape, but by the fact that there’s always something attached to it, dangling on a string. This may be various things. The most common attachment is an adapter to charge you phone with. Also attached are miniature T-money cards.

Another use of the mobile phone is using it to tell the time: ask a Korean what time it is and chances are high that s/he will pick up his/her phone to tell the time.

One thing that bothers me a lot though, is the enormous amount of spam I receive on my phone: at least 10 spam messages. I’d hope that some regulatory organization in South Korea would be as tough as the OPTA in the Netherlands who fines spammers up to 250,000 Euro.

As for smart phones, what struck me a couple of weeks ago was that the IPhone was not for sale in South Korea. Apparently, the telecom providers were very apprehensie to introduce it, because the IPhone’s Wifi connectivity could jeopardize there earnings.  With wifi, smart phones can easily use Skype as an alternative. Recently, however, the telecom providers decided to start selling the IPhone in Korea, two and a half years after its introduction. Talking about late adopters.

PS apparently the phone will costs 280 Euro’s in the Netherlands, according to the Dutch website.

Safety and security Korean style

South Koreans value security highly. We all do, and I’m not sure they do so more than in other countries. However, some things struck my eye. For instance, there is an abundance of CCTV camera’s. In parking lots, subway, stores, PC Bangs, apartment blocks and in the streets. They are way ahead of us. Whether that’s a good thing I’m not so sure. Apparently this is being accepted. Korea being a Confucian country, one could ask whether Koreans score high on authoritarianism. In contrast, Great Brittan has many CCTV cameras as well but I suspect they don’t care much for authority, especially since the recent troubles about excessive reimbursements. So, I suspect that there maybe only a small correlation between the acceptance of CCTV and authoritarianism. At the same time, I’ve seen surprisingly little police in the streets, so far. Maybe they are all sitting indoors watching the TV’s.

Home security becomes digital as well. My front door lock comes with a pin code. No I’m not going to tell what it is. To ensure I don’t forget it, I changed it to the same one my mobile phone has. I suspect many of us do this, because with all electronic bank cards and passwords it’s becoming more secure but also  more difficult to remember them all. You’d have to be quite computer savvy to use a password manager and organize all your security info.

Another example of security I encountered was at Starbucks. Yes, as a foreigner you tend to visit Starbucks for the Wifi connection, and so far I counted three locations in Daegu. Anyhow, I opened my laptop and searched for the network. I found the network. But there it stopped. To connect to the Internet I had to provide my foreigner ID number and name. OK, so security is tight, that’s for sure. But apparently, this not only applies to foreigners: Koreans wanting to register at Cyworld have to produce an official ID as well. This means all Internet activity can be traced back to the person. This may be a downside. However, the upside is that communication on Cyworld most likely conforms more to regular social norms and activity and is less controversial.

Internet security is also serious business for the Koreans. According to The Korea Times of September 9th 2009, the Korean Communications Commission (KCC) and the Korea Internet and Security Agency (KISA) plan to have ISPs to monitor customer’s Internet security (e.g. malicious software, bad virus protection). If customers do not comply to minimum rules of computer safety, ISP are compelled to limit or even cut off computers from the Internet. Compare it to compulsory inoculation for the swine flu at the risk of being confined to home for long. Software companies that fail to fix their software vulnerabilities at the risk of their business being suspended. The reason for tightening security is a number of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks last July, affecting more than 80,000 computers. And then on September 13th the Korea Times reported that also 3000 cyber sherrifs are to cruise the web for suspicious activities. This all shows that the Korean government takes its responsibility, not only by promoting the online activities but also securing it.

Below are some pictures on health, safety and security in South Korea:

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