Children storm the DMZ

[This story was written originally in March 2013 reporting from the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)  for The Korea Herald and later re-published by The Nation in Thailand.]

Children in DMZ
I took this photo at the amusement park near Paju when the kids were gathering up for the buses to take them back to Seoul after a day-long outing inside the heavily militarized Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea in March 2013.

A handful of tour buses carrying foreign diplomats, Korean reporters and children slowly lumbered across Unification Bridge into the demilitarised zone, carefully negotiating barricades assembled halfway along the bridge’s length.

The schoolchildren were fidgety and chattering excitedly, jumping out of their seats to peer out of the bus windows at sights they scarcely could have seen before – armoured vehicles, heavily armed checkpoints and nests of razor-wire, the legacy of a three-year civil war and 60 years of national division.

The schoolchildren, a dozen foreign envoys, and their entourage were part of March 21’s “International Children’s Peace Day”, a day-long tour of various tourist sites in and around Paju, a sleepy rural town north of Seoul. It was organised by International Cooperation of Environmental Youth, a US-based group led by organiser Lee Kyoung-tae and wife Melissa Lee.

The couple has made headlines over the years on peace and environmental issues, including a movement to build what the couple described as a “children’s peace forest” inside the DMZ.

“It is a great idea because peace is one of the most expensive ideas there is, and children can market the idea better than anyone else,” said Charitha Yattogoda, a diplomat from the Sri Lankan Embassy in Seoul.

“We also know how expensive peace can be in Sri Lanka. We had a civil conflict for 30 years and only recently achieved peace,” he said during the day-long event.

“We know how important it is, and we at the embassy immediately thought of joining this event to lend our support as best as we can.”

The DMZ can be a culture shock for any visitor. Barbed wire fences and security checkpoints abound, guarded by soldiers lugging machine guns.

The soldiers are not lonely, however, as busloads of tourists show up daily to gawk at the world’s most heavily fortified border, even as North Korea threatens to drown Seoul in a “sea of fire”.

“It’s a good experience for the children. This is not an easy place to organize a visit, so we appreciate the effort the organisers made for the children. Normally kids under 12 years of age are not allowed inside the DMZ,” said Wang Kai, wife of Austrian Ambassador Josef Muellner. Wang delivered welcome remarks at Imjinggak Pavilion at the start of the tour.

Imjinggak Pavilion was built “to remind Koreans of their painful past and their commitment to unification”, says the Gyeonggi provincial government.

The pavilion’s amusement park, fast-food joints and kitschy souvenir shops mix with an ever-present Cold War tension that is higher now than it has been in years, following North Korean outrage over UN sanctions and joint US-South Korean military drills that have included Cold War-style B-52 flyovers.

Sensing potential controversy, some foreign diplomats shied away from lending any insights about the divided Korea, the demilitarised zone or the North.

Most of them, however, realized the crucial role that today’s children must eventually take if peace and unification is to return to their country.

“War and peace is a game for politicians to play, but I think these young people will grow up to change the way the game is played,” said Sameer Alwahedy, an attache at the Jordanian Embassy in Seoul. “In Jordan, we believe in peace, everyone in the world has the right to live in peace. A children’s event like this could be a great help in the Israeli-Palestinian issue as well.”

It is easy to cynically dismiss the conflict-zone tourist industry that has slowly grown in the area, including the Dora Observatory, where one wave to soldiers and look at North Korea through binoculars for 500 won (Bt13), and the amusement park at the Imjinggak Pavilion, the start and end point for the day-long tour.

But the mix of tourist kitsch Cold War humor shows Paju’s residents are making the best of a bad situation, and it could offer hope.

“This event symbolizes to me the promotion of peace because, obviously, youth are the future. We have to make a commitment to conflict resolution and this is a conscious effort to promote peace,” said SU Ahmed, deputy head of mission at the Nigerian Embassy.

“Children are the ones who suffer the most in a conflict situation. That is why it is important to let them participate in being part of the solution in events like this one,” said Adamu A Musa, minister at the Nigerian Embassy in Seoul.

In addition to the amusement park, which is complete with rides and carnival booths, there are a number of other touristy things to do and see: take the bicycle tour; bang the Bell of Peace for 10,000 won; stroll on the Bridge of Freedom, which comes to an abrupt and symbolic dead end; and peer at the rusting steam engine stuck in situ since the end of the Korean War, riddled with bullet holes.

Musa, Ahmed and their wives returned to Seoul with souvenir DMZ baseball caps.

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Kakao details premium taxi app, launches test run

Kakao Taxi

[This story was written originally on October 21, 2015 reporting from Seoul, South Korea.]

The main features of the planned service include Mercedes and Lexus taxi models, a suit-wearing driver, and a complimentary drink, at around three times the price of a regular cab.

Kakao, the $7 billion parent company of messaging app KakaoTalk, released more details on Tuesday about the planned launch of a premium taxi app, as it tries to monetise lifestyle platform businesses.

KakaoTaxi Black will start off with a test run connecting users to a fleet of 100 cars through the end of this year while the company awaits final approval from the Seoul City government, when the service will then be expanded.

KakaoTaxi Black appears to be a souped-up version of Kakao’s existing ride-hailing app. So far the “taxis” include Mercedes E-Class Sedans and Lexus models, in contrast to the natural gas-powered Hyundai Sonata and Kia Lotze models that the vast majority of Seoul cabbies drive

KakaoTaxi Black users will send a request for a ride to a specific destination from their smartphone using the app.

The drivers will be professionally licensed and wearing a suit, much like a limousine service driver. The ride will even come with a complimentary beverage.

The catch is the high-end cab will cost about three times the price of regular cab, the company said. So, a ballpark figure could be about 45,000 won ($37.50) for a crosstown trip in Seoul that would normally be priced at around 15,000 won ($12.50). The base fee is 8,000 won ($6.60).

KakaoTaxi Black could presage future efforts to strengthen the company’s profit sources, since it has posted rather weak financial results for the past two quarters. That said, Kakao is a local success story, growing from a fledgling startup to South Korea’s second-largest IT venture after Naver Corp.

It merged with search portal Daum last year and spun off games and innovative businesses from its mobile-based platform. Intensifying competition in the industry has since burdened the firm with heavy marketing costs and anemic profits.

John Jung, Kakao’s chief business officer and the executive in charge of KakaoTaxi, said during a media briefing on Tuesday that while the concept is quite new to South Korea, premium taxis already take up 27 to 30 percent of the worldwide taxi market.

Kakao launched its existing ride-hailing app after it inked a three-party MOU with the Seoul Taxi Association and a major taxi company. The premium taxi drivers will be regular employees of the taxi company, Kakao said.

As of this month, Kakao said it has about 160,000 drivers registered with KakaoTaxi, which has accumulated 30 million calls since it launched in March, and receives 300,000 requests on a daily basis.Kakao Taxi

LG could launch its own mobile payment service as early as November

[This story was written originally for ZDNet on October 15, 2015 reporting from Seoul, South Korea.]

LG could join an already global market crowded by big players such as Google’s Android Pay, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, perhaps as early as November, according to South Korean media reports.

South Korea takes another step to ActiveX liberation

[This story was written originally for ZDNet on October 15, 2015 reporting from Seoul, South Korea.]

The Korea Trade Network’s development of an ActiveX-free authentication certification program may be the most concrete sign yet of South Korea finally dislodging itself from Internet Explorer.

Samsung affiliates to benefit from demand for electronic components, OLEDs

samsung girls

[This story was written originally for ZDNet on October 6, 2015 reporting from Seoul, South Korea]

Continued strong demand for TVs, tablets, and handsets will see a profit surge over the next two years, according to a Korean report.

South Korean TVs’ market dominance slowly weakening against Chinese rivals

Samsung is focused on the premium end of the TV market as its strategy to stem the torrent of Chinese companies eroding its market share.

Reporters check out Samsung TVs at a trade show.
Reporters check out Samsung TVs at a trade show.

Even though the Chinese makers are nibbling at South Korean market share, those Korean TV makers continue to enjoy dominance at the premium end of the global TV market.

South Korean TV makers are slowly losing ground in the global market in the face of Chinese rivals and faltering TV demand worldwide despite their strategy of keeping the tech edge over Chinese rivals by developing new innovative products.

Let’s look at some numbers. According to the a report in August by market tracker DisplaySearch, the combined share of Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics — the two big South Korean players — came to 34.8 percent in the first half of 2015. That’s a 4.3 percent drop from a year ago. Not much but the question is whether this is an irreversible trend.

In the meantime, Chinese makers saw their combined share soar 4.6 percentage points to 25.9 percent over the cited period.

Samsung’s share dipped to 20.8 percent, while LG’s retreated to 13.9 percent over the same period, the report said.

LG Electronics is mass-producing OLED TVs, first in the world, while Samsung Electronics is focusing on premium models such as LCD-based SUHD TVs.  It is top-notch technology, but the jury is still out on whether that is innovative enough or if even out competing their Chinese rival on the premium end is the right strategy going forward.

TCL Corp.’s share increased to 5.7 percent from 5.1 percent, and its local rival Hisense Co. also bolstered its presence to 5.4 percent of the global share from 4.9 percent.

South Korean companies’ TV sales have slowed over the past year. Samsung sold 24.1 million units in the first six months of 2015, down 15.2 percent from the previous year. LG’s TV sales sank 16 percent on-year to 13.6 million units as of end-June.

In contrast, Chinese makers boosted their combined sales to 25.4 million units from 21.9 million units during that time.

While the financial media has reported that China weakening its currency by letting it float unhindered in currency markets make things harder for Korean makers, that seems a little exaggerated.

From May, the Chinese Yuan decreased in value in relation to the Korean won by about 5 percent to about 5.45 Yuan for 1,000 Korean won from about 5.71 Yuan.

China’s move may further hurt Korean companies that have already been struggling to vie with Japanese firms backed by a cheaper currency, market watchers here said, adding there is a need to draw up fresh strategies that will help tide over the slackening sales.

Sure, a weaker Yuan is a disadvantage for Korean exporters since it undermines their price competitiveness versus Chinese rivals in the global market. But a 5 percent difference over a four month period is not going to make a crucial difference. It is one factor among many at play here.

South Korea to invest $350 million in IoT smart device makers

The government’s investment plans follow South Korean official’s beliefs that the country’s tech industries have been slowing.

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