E-Korea: Hype versus Reality

Update, March 2007 - (South Korean Internet Censorship) On 26 March South Korea's Ministry of Information and Communication announced a new crackdown on Internet content. The focus of the announcement was on pornographic user-generated content posted on popular Korean portal sites - this after a porn clip made it onto Yahoo Korea ... (more)

Update, February 2007 - Anyone (crazed rebels!) in Korea using a Mac or Linux operating system, or even using Windows but with a non-Microsoft browser (i.e. Firefox, Opera, Netscape), has long known the futility of trying to use (or even view) many Korean websites. Korean sites (i.e. e-commerce, banking, major portals, even many school or university sites, etc.) are nearly all programmed to work only with Windows machines using Internet Explorer. Most web developers in Korea seem to have little understanding of, or sympathy for, anyone wanting to use something different. For an interesting, though somewhat technical explanation of why, please read The Cost of Monoculture (link opens in a new window).

With the advent of Microsoft Vista, and the changes/upgrades it brings compared to XP, this decision (made by the Korean government and most Korean websites) to rely nearly exclusively on Microsoft is now coming back to haunt the peninsula. Changes in Vista have essentially gutted the security and login features of most Korean finance and banking sites, portals, online shopping malls, and nearly any site requiring any type of security (for more on these problems please see More Windows Vista Problems for Korean Firms at Chosun.com). Web programmers throughout the country are now having to furiously recode sites, while simultaneously urging their users not to upgrade to Vista.

Meanwhile, while Vista upgrades are still creating issues around the world, websites and countries that include flexibility and diversity (i.e. compatibility with Mac, Linux, Firefox, etc.) during the web development process are reporting far fewer troubles.

Hmm, one of the world's most homogenous countries offline, creating one of the world's most homogenous areas online ... there's gotta be a good research topic in there somewhere ...

Update, April 2005 - After living outside of Korea for the past year I recently returned and tried again to get a cell phone in my own name, as in the article below. This time it was much smoother - I just dropped by a small SK shop near my gym and, after they checked my foreign registration card, I was able to buy a cell phone and service. Of course, I still had to pay the 200,000 won foreigner surcharge, but at least the process went quickly.

March 2003 - Anyone visiting the peninsula recently through Inchon Airport has undoubtedly seen the advertisements for ‘e-Korea’ lining the walls and playing on the video screens while you wait to clear Immigration. The videos especially tout Korea as a world-leading hub of broadband and advanced Internet services.

Spend any time in the South and you’re bound to hear someone pointing out the huge numbers of Koreans that connect to the Net using broadband, the “highest percentage in the world.” Or you’ll hear Koreans proudly promoting their cell phones, with some of the most advanced features and technology found anywhere in the world.

Is it true? Is Korea really the broadband and cell phone utopia it's made out to be?

Here’s my experience.

Buying a Cell Phone

“Hi, I’d like to buy a cell phone.”

“B . . . b . . . but you’re a foreigner.”

“Yeah, thanks, I'm aware of that. Now, can I buy the phone?”

“Well no, we don’t sell to foreigners.”

“Really? I printed this out from your website. It says you do.”

“I don’t care what our website says. We don’t sell to foreigners.”

That was my recent experience with LG Telecom in Shinchon. I’d been using an LG cell phone under a Korean friend’s name (the most common method for expats living in Korea) for a couple of years and had finally decided to upgrade to a newer phone and switch over the billing to my name. I’ve been living in Korea for the better part of a decade, speak Korean, and have all the government paperwork and IDs I need to be able to legally conduct my life here. I had even gone to the trouble of finding LG Telecom’s policy on selling cell phone service to foreigners, printed it out and taken it with me to make the clerk’s job easier. I'd also gotten over my irritation at the idea that as a non-Korean I would be required to pay a 250,000 won (about $200) deposit to be granted the privilege of giving LG my business.

All that to no avail. I’d been to two smaller shops earlier in the day but both of them refused to deal with me, telling me I needed to go to the district’s main LG Telecom office in Shinchon. That’s where the dialog above took place. I went around and around with the clerk until she finally gave up and got her manager.

He gave me the same story, “LG Telecom doesn’t sell to foreigners. Even if we filled out all the paperwork and tried to sell to you our home office would cancel the contract. Sorry. Goodbye.” And with that he walked back into his office and I was dismissed.

After rattling the windows for a few minutes yelling at him and the rest of the staff I left. Next on the list was SK Telecom. SK is Korea’s largest cell phone company and, again according to their website, they would sell to foreigners.

“Hi, I’d like to look at some of your cell phones.”

“Sure, here they are. Which one are you interested in?”

“That one there looks good. I’ll take it.”

“OK, where’s your Korean friend to do the paperwork?”

And with that it started all over again. “I live here, I work here, what’s the problem?”

“Sorry, but we don’t sell directly to foreigners. You need a Korean friend to sign up for you.”

“No, actually I don’t. Here’s your company’s policy stating that I don’t and that I can sign-up with these documents.”

“Uh, let me get my manager . . .”

By now I was fed up with wasting my time and when the manager started in on the no-foreigners spiel I just let him have it. Telling him exactly what I thought of his company and its policies. By the end he was even agreeing with me, that, “yes, SK Telecom’s policies are racist. But I can’t do anything about it.” Fortunately this time there were a lot of other customers in the store and the manager at least looked embarrassed. His embarrassment didn’t get me the phone but it at least made me feel better.

I decided to try one more place before giving up. There was a shop directly opposite the U.S. embassy where I’d seen some signs on the windows in English. Maybe they would deign to sell to a foreigner . . .

I walked into the place and was immediately greeted warmly by the lady who ran it. Not wanting to waste any more time I just came out and asked if she sold to foreigners. “Sure, if you have your residence card and don’t mind paying the extra deposit.” After picking my jaw up off the floor I said that sounded fine. By now being forced to pay the extra $200 foreigner charge wasn’t even bothering me.

After looking over the various phones and plans I finally choose one and signed up. Oddly enough the lady recommended the SK Telecom plan and got me signed up for that. This not 200 meters from the main SK office where I had just had all the problems. Less than 15 minutes after walking in I was on my way back out, cell phone in hand. My crazy quest to have my own phone in my own name finally over.

Or so I thought.

When I signed up for the plan I checked the box to have the bill automatically deducted from my bank account each month, with a copy to be sent to my home 'for my records'. Well, it’s been nearly a year since I signed up and I’m still waiting for that first bill. Still waiting for them to take the payment out of my bank account as well.

This doesn’t mean I’ve been getting free service of course. What happens is that every couple of months SK calls and/or sends text messages telling me my service is about to be cut off. Woe unto me if I happen to be out of the country when this time comes - I arrive back in Korea to no cell phone service. The first few times this happened I would go down to an SK office to get it cleared up. Each time I was forced to resubmit all my account numbers, address and other information. Each time I was assured that now everything was taken care of and the bill would be deducted from my bank account. Each time I went back . . .

Unfortunately the store run by the lady who’d originally sold me the phone has closed - perhaps she’d sold to too many foreigners! Anyway, after six trips I’ve finally given up on ever getting a bill or an automatic payment. Instead I traipse down to the closest office every month and pay whatever the overdue charges are. Why they can’t at least send me a bill I’ll never know.

My advice to anyone trying to get a cell phone in Korea under their own name, as quirky a quest as that appears to be, is to prepare for A LOT of hassle, plus of course the extra $200 fee. If your experience is like mine you’ll be told it can’t be done. You’ll be told you have to sign up in the name of a Korean friend. You’ll be told that you can only buy a pre-paid phone and are not eligible for any of the normal monthly service plans. And, even if you get past all the hurdles, you’ll be charged an extra $200. All this, of course, only in Korean. If you plan on using English expect even more problems. Not to mention trying to get your bill once you get signed up!

Good luck. I hope your experience is better than mine.

World Leader in Broadband?

Now how about broadband? With more people, as a percentage, using broadband Internet service in Korea than any other country in the world you would expect that to be pretty painless. Right?

Well . . .

The whole time I’ve been writing this article I’ve been trying to log onto my Hotmail account to check my e-mail. I’ve also been trying to log into Yahoo to do some updates on a website I work for. It's been nearly two hours now and still no luck. I’ve called my service provider, Korea Telecom (Korea’s national phone company), for the umpteenth time in the past few weeks but all I got was the same old story.

“Our customers are having problems accessing some foreign sites right now. We know about the problem but have no idea when it will be fixed. Is there any chance you can just use Korean sites until then?”

“Well, I signed up for Internet service, not some kind of Korea-only service. I have work I need to get done. Why do you keep charging me full-price when you’re not giving me full-service?”

“We’re sorry. We know our customers have been having some problems with foreign sites. Do you think you could e-mail us the exact URL and some other information about the sites you’re having trouble with?”

“Uh, hello!??! It’s Hotmail, my e-mail provider, that I’m having the problem with. How do you suggest I e-mail you?”

“Right, could you hold please?”

If I only had a buck for every time I’ve had that conversation recently . . . Three trips out by a technician (“whoa, your computer uses English Windows. Could you translate this for me?”), endless phone calls and hours spent on the phone with tech ‘support’ have all been a waste of time. All I’ve gotten for my trouble is the same old story about problems connecting to some foreign sites. About how they're, "aware of the problem but don't know when it will be fixed.” Always left unsaid, “keep paying your bill or we’ll cut the whole thing off and take away your phone service . . .”

But hey, at least it’s only Yahoo and Hotmail. It's not like anyone uses those sites . . .

I switched to KT’s ‘Megapass’ service last year after using another provider called Thrunet (a.k.a. ‘DownNet’) for a couple of years. I finally gave up on Thrunet because it was down so much as to be nearly useless. I figured Korea Telecom, as Korea's national phone provider, would offer a lot more reliability.

At first KT was fine. It was maybe a little slower than Thrunet but at least it was usually up and running. That is, until the past couple of months. Now I'm to the point where the sites I need to use are down at least as much as Thrunet ever was. Which means trouble for me trying to get my job done.

For whatever reason KT, the national phone company and largest Internet service provider in Korea, can't seem to get its servers straight with those of Hotmail, Yahoo and several other foreign sites. Each time I call they insist they are working on the problem. Each time I call they also insist they have no idea when they'll get it fixed. Each time I call . . .

Perhaps it's time to try Korea's other broadband provider, Hanaro . . .


The next time you go through Inchon Airport and see one of those ads praising ‘e-Korea’, or hear some Korean proudly patting themselves on the back for being such a telecom utopia, please remember that underneath all the hype there can be a lot of problems. Those of you living here and thinking of buying one of these services please be aware of what can go wrong and the hassles involved, especially for non-Korean speakers. For those of you thinking of investing in one of these companies, good luck. Thrunet’s recent bankruptcy filing and SK’s huge accounting problems should mean you're in for an interesting time!

These have been my experiences. I'm sure others have something to add, pro or con. Please head to the feedback page and let me know. I'll post the replies in a future update.

Thanks for your time.

Scott Fisher
1stopKorea's Webmaster
March 30, 2003

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