Diversion to Danyang

For the last weekend of my parents’ month-long stay in Korea, the three of us took a trip to Danyang, a county in North Chungcheon Province, right in the middle of Korea.

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I have to admit, I went into this trip with more than a little trepidation. Even though Lonely Planet had called Danyang “a little gem,” or words to that effect, I’ve had enough experience travelling around Korea to know that some ebulliently promoted towns and countryside spots can turn out to be crushing disappointments. Indeed, in my time as a writer/editor, I once wrote a travel piece about a grindingly dull Korean island that made it sound like some kind of long-lost, bucolic Eden.

Without doubt, though, Danyang really is a treat. Accessible via a three-hour train ride from Seoul, it’s easy to get to and fits a load of great scenery into a fairly compact area. More surprising is that the small town of Danyang itself really isn’t that bad. That may sound like pretty weak praise, but unfortunately, due to the ravages of colonialism, war and progress-obsessed dictators, very little of Korea’s traditional architectural beauty survives; as a result, the country’s small towns and villages can be pretty depressing places.

Anyway, we had a pretty laid-back itinerary, so we didn’t get to see everything in the vicinity (including, sadly, the Ondal Fortress). Again, in stark contrast with caves I’ve seen elsewhere in Korea, the Gosundonggul Caves were really splendid, littered with vertiginous drops and mind-bending rock formations. The river cruise was great, with lush mountainside scenery that really made it worthwhile. And with it being in the early throes of autumn, Sobaeksan National Park, which we entered via the Darian entrance, looked really pretty. Here are a few pics (the cave ones are on my dad’s camera, so I’ll hopefully be able to add them later):

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Koreans Learn to Love Twitter

A few months ago, something peculiar happened on my Twitter feed. Having only recently started using my long dormant account, I was slowly building up a list of contacts and news feeds when I got an e-mail saying that someone from my recent past in Korea was now “following” me. That, in itself, wasn’t odd, but his identity did give me a bit of a jolt: It was my 40-something ex-boss at Morning Calm, a man I’d never have pictured being into social networking sites, least of all a foreign and (to me at that point) relatively marginal one such as Twitter.

As a long-standing and very active Facebook user, I had noticed a gradual increase in Facebook use among my Korean friends. From virtually zero a couple of years ago, I had befriended perhaps 30 or 40 Koreans over the intervening months. With very few exceptions, however, those friends would conform to a certain pattern, namely, in their 30s or younger, more internationally oriented (due to their work or upbringing) and English speaking. As a result, Facebook’s progress, at least among Koreans I knew, was slow and steady, rather than all-conquering as it had been back home.

Doosan CEO Yongmaan Park
GNP politician Park Geun-hye

In the weeks that followed, I noticed all manner of Koreans – politicians, CEOs, celebrities and, of course, a fair few people I knew personally – popping up in the “who to follow” section. After chatting to a few Korean friends, who pretty much all confirmed that Twitter was indeed hot stuff in Korea, I decided to write a piece on the phenomenon, which was printed by Yonhap news here.

I won’t regurgitate everything in the article, but basically, the people I spoke to – a strikingly young CEO of a Korean social media startup called Cizion, a communications professor, a PR manager and a PhD student – agreed on several key causes of Twitter’s ascent: the arrival of the iPhone, the similarities between Facebook and a local site called Cyworld, and, in a related point, the dynamism and openness of Twitter in comparison with more closed systems, such as Facebook and especially Cyworld.

This last point was echoed in a fascinating recent blog in The Economist, which took a closer look at the challenges facing Naver, Korea’s biggest portal:

In response (to Twitter and Facebook), Naver has launched a Twitter-like service called “me2DAY,” a Facebook-like service called “NAVER Me,” and “NAVER Talk,” a text- and instant-messaging service. But Naver, as one Korean blogger puts it, runs a gingerbread house. Unlike Google, Naver almost never collaborates with smaller companies on new services, but builds everything itself. It is difficult to move personal data in or out of Naver. And it tacks new services onto a bright, cluttered homepage. The gingerbread house if full of treats. Why would anyone want to leave?

For much of the last 10 years or more, while Korea has grown into an IT powerhouse with some of the highest rates of broadband penetration in the world, practically all its online activity has been on sites that are either effectively closed to foreigners or have no appeal to them. Two major cases in point are Naver, whose search engine continues to dwarf Google in Korea (though the fast adoption of Google-friendly SNS poses a threat to this dominance), and Cyworld, whose much-hyped foray into the US market recently closed down.

I don’t have empirical data to back this up, but my own feeling is that the arrivals of the iPhone, Twitter and, to a lesser extent so far, Facebook, could be heralding big shifts not just in the social activity of Koreans, but also in the way they connect with the outside world. Though language remains a big barrier, Korea’s belated move to global internet platforms promises to open up its internet culture in much the same way as the iPhone upended its mobile market.

The Price of Fleeting Success? $80

If you’re one of those very rare people who looks in here from time to time, you may have noticed that all my slideshows, which run on a plug-in called Cincopa, crashed a couple of days ago. The reason for this is that me old chum Robert Koehler very kindly linked to my blog in a small post he did about new links on his blogroll, causing a surge in traffic that way exceeded the monthly GB limit on the free version of the plug-in. The upshot is that I’ve paid $80 for an upgrade to Cincopa, which is definitely a tad steep, but it spares me the grief of having to find and then install another slideshow plug-in. There are also, apparently, some smart little extra features on the paid version that I will have to get around to playing with soon.

As The Bad Workman Did With His Tools…

I blame the camera.

At least, I hope I’m not entirely to blame for the pics from my recent trip to the Korea Electronics Show being so terrible. Though it wasn’t all as zippy and space age as you might expect, the show did have some cool stuff, whose visual splendour I singularly failed to capture in the shots below.

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The really big thing, still, was 3D. There were reams of 3D screens, displays, monitors, phones and all sorts on show, with the best content – sport, big panoramic shots, video games – looking generally good and sometimes stunning. Newer 3D stuff on display included a 31-inch set using OLED – the self-lighting diodes more normally used on high-end mobile phones – nifty 3D monitors and, over in LG Display, some glasses-free 3D displays, including a dinky one for a prototype mobile phone.

Made by LG (for whom I do PR work), the OLED set had perhaps the most arresting picture, with colors that really gleamed. Unfortunately, however, they weren’t showing off its 3D capabilities this time, and until the big producers figure out a way to mass produce bigger OLED screens more cheaply, the sets are likely to remain a marginal taste.

Elsewhere, Samsung had a nice touchscreen PC on display, though not, for some reason, its “iPad killer” Galaxy tab computer that’s due for release any day now. Both LG and Samsung had their Smart TVs on show too, which will, when ready, be competing with Google’s and Apple’s TV systems. They are still at the prototype stage, so it was difficult to see exactly how easy, or otherwise, they will be to use. But the concept of Smart TVs is undoubtedly an exciting one. If they could do for TV what the iPhone etc have done for mobile phones, it could genuinely transform the way people watch TV.

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Internet TV has been tried before, and it still faces sizeable obstacles, but I think that it stands to make TV so much more adaptable and user friendly that, ultimately, its widespread adoption is inevitable. I mean, whether or not viewers ever take to just browsing the internet on their TV, the prospect of being able to instantly access any programme or film, from any era, and watch it there and then on your wide-screen — with no need to fiddle through TV schedules, buy DVDs or Blu-rays or even wait for stuff to download from file-sharing sites — is a couch potato’s wet dream.

Then, of course, there’s the possibility of being able to access all the info you could possibly need – about featured gadgets/clothing/holiday locations, soundtracks, movie reviews/credits etc – through your remote. Wall-E may have been more prescient than it seemed.

As an added bonus, I had the chance to play with one of LG’s new, lower-priced Optimus smartphones (pretty light, nice feel in the hand and a very responsive screen). And, when my colleague and I went off for a coffee, we got to stand next to Thomas Jane (he of The Punisher, The Mist and Deep Blue Sea) who was proclaiming his intention to buy shares in some company whose name, tragically, I didn’t catch. After all, would you argue stock predictions with this guy?

The Tale of the Late Adopter

Finally. After weeks of research and prevaricating, I finally bought my first smartphone yesterday. And what a thing of beauty it is. It may “only” be a 9000 edition BlackBerry Bold, but despite its being second-hand, it’s just four months old, has not a single scratch on it and gleams like a lovely new toy.

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In the course of finding this beaut, I became a minor expert in navigating the sometimes tricky waters of buying a smartphone in Korea. Because of this, I thought it might make sense to write down what I found out and share it with any confused, smartphone-seeking expats who might stray onto this site.

First off, I wanted to buy a phone outright because I didn’t want to be tied down to the standard two-year deal that comes with smartphones. I should add that while the situation can still be somewhat unclear – with precise answers, as is often the case in Korea, changing depending on whom you ask – KT and SKT recently said they have implemented policies to make it easier for foreigners to buy phones (including smartphones). Nonetheless, when I asked about the Galaxy S at the SKT store in Myeongdong, I was told that it wasn’t possible for a foreigner to do it in his/her name.

My next wheeze was to buy a new phone outright at the SKT store. The assistant there said that would be no problem, but quoted me 800,000 won for a BlackBerry (I forget which model). This seemed like an awful lot, so I asked her if it’d be possible to buy a phone overseas (via Amazon or something) and hook it up here. She said yes, so I checked on Amazon and, lo and behold, I saw the same or a similar model for just $270. Problem solved!

Or not. Through a forum on the Linked Seoul site, I found out that any smartphones bought outside of Korea have to receive certification that takes up to a month to process and costs between 300,000 and 500,000 won! This would still have worked out cheaper than buying a new handset here, but I was damned if I was going to line the pockets of quangos/phone carriers/whoever for this particular “service” (if you read Korean, check out the irate comments on that page).

All of which brought me to the second-hand market. I hadn’t really known there was much demand for this kind of thing in Korea, but, fortunately, there is. Thanks to a tip from someone at work, I searched this site for a couple of weeks before finding my perfect match. I had also tried Craigslist, and I actually came pretty close to buying a BB through someone I met there, but in the end I think I definitely made the right choice. Like I said, this phone is just four months old, came with the full box of stuff, and basically looks brand new.

Of course, you have to have a bit of Korean in order to use that site (although, unlike many Korean sites, you can register on it using a foreigner’s ID number), but it offers way more choice than Craigslist, with new offers being posted constantly throughout the day. The going rate for a Bold 9000 seems to be between 300,000 and 400,000 won, with iPhones generally starting at 400,000 (even for 3G 8GB models, hence my decision not to buy one).

As for the risk of scams, etc, I think that kind of behaviour is largely discouraged by the need for people advertising on the site to register with their ID numbers. There is also a link to a site called The Cheat, which encourages users to red flag serial scammers. Like everything else, I imagine, provided you take precautions (never wire or transfer money in advance, remember that if it seems too good/cheap to be true, it probably is), you should be OK. Just make sure you have the help of someone who can handle the language side of things, and there are some good deals to be had…

Creation in Korea

Though you could certainly be forgiven for being unaware of it, Seoul (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere) has been the official World Design Capital (WDC) for 2010. In what has been a pretty scanty itinerary of events, the highlight of the design year, the Seoul Design Fair, is on until October 7th in Jamsil Sports Complex. With my visiting parents as curious as I was to see where modern Korean design is at, the three of us went for a look-see on Sunday morning.

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An oft-repeated mantra about Koreans is that, due to certain cultural factors, they lack creativity. Korean schools, it is said, stifle critical and creative thinking by emphasising rote learning above all else, while the rigid hierarchy in business and academia discourages initiative. To some extent, this remains true. Despite having some of the biggest car and electronics companies in the world, no Korean company has ever produced an iPod, a 5 Series or even a Walkman.

As usual with such generalisations, though, it’s exaggerated and often plain untrue. Having worked with several creative companies in Korea, I’ve seen how cultural mores can impede the flow of ideas – with, for instance, underlings (myself often included) afraid to pipe up in front of the boss. But I’ve just as often been taken aback by the inspired notions I’ve heard from Korean editors, writers and designers.

In addition, having acknowledged the importance of design, Koreans have now taken to it with characteristic zeal. Seoul alone now has in the region of 11,000 design students, and the most interesting stuff on display at the Seoul Design Fair was the fruit of student design projects. Ranging from advertising and architecture to clothes and consumer knick-knacks, the pieces in the university exhibits made a mockery of the notion that Koreans aren’t creative.

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Besides a few displays in Jamsil’s main pitch area and a sizeable “Designer’s Market” of quirky clothes, accessories and gadgets, much of the rest of the fair was taken up with furniture and interior displays from Japan, Germany, Spain and elsewhere. Nice as some if it was, the selections were often uninspired and seemed rather pedestrian in comparison with the more adventurous stuff the Korean students had come out with. While no-one is claiming that Korean design is yet on a par with that of design titans like Sweden and Italy – and though a good chunk of Korea’s top designers still feel the need to study abroad to gain the necessary expertise – Korea has both a long history and an exciting present in design. The problem, as it often is here, is a failure to get that message across overseas and sometimes even to Koreans themselves. And sad as it is to say, Korea’s potentially fascinating but largely unknown World Design Capital status is symptomatic of how this continues to be so.