Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: September 2009

Random Pics

Here are a few random pics I found over the last few days that I found amusing/interesting for one reason or another.

First of all, from today’s Joongang Ilbo and a story about payphones in Korea, the top 10 payphone locations around Seoul:


I have no great insights on these locations. Although I was amused to see a “correctional facility” make the ranking. Otherwise, I see no obvious patterns to these locations.

And to go with that, a chart of payphone usage in Korea since 1997.


I personally find this chart fascinating because I first arrived in Korea in 1996, in the middle of the pager era. Some of my most vivid memories back then are of the huge lineups everywhere, for pretty much any and every payphone in the country. Talking on the payphone in some loud bar, trying to explain to your friends how to get their. Or listening to someone at that same loud bar have a fight with his/her boyfriend/girlfriend (er… not that I never did anything so ridiculous, of course). Good times.

Anyhow, I find it amazing that there are still over 150,000 payphones in Korea. Although, according to the story, 20 percent of payphones have not been used in the past year. Yikes.

And then, just the other day, I checked out Korea’s Web Standards website at www.webstandards.or.kr and found this:

“Cannot establish a connection” indeed. Fortunately, the link is working again, but at the time, it struck me as funny. (Actually, it is one of the many sites associated with the Korean web pioneer Channy Yun, a very nice guy).

Finally, here is a pic of Bong Joon-ho from the San Sebastian Film Festival last week, where he was on the jury.


That is him in the middle, looking toward the camera with a funny look on his face. I do not know why, but his expression seemed pretty amusing.

HAEUNDAE Tsunami Floods North Korea

Channel News Asia is reporting that North Korea is cracking down on foreign films after a university student was caught watching HAEUNDAE on his computer.

The student reportedly downloaded the film while at a relative’s house in Chongjin, in northeastern North Korea. He then took the film back to Pyongyang to watch with his dormitory friends.

North Korea has been awash in pop culture from South Korea for several years, something NK authorities have mostly ignored, much as it mostly ignored the many markets that had sprung up around the country. But recently the North’s government has started cracking down on those markets, so apparently South Korean pop culture has got to go, too.

Why is South Korean culture so dangerous to the North? Some, like Andrei Lankov, argue that seeing South Korea’s material prosperity makes the North look bad by comparison. Others, like Brian Myers, say the danger is in not in seeing the South’s material success (which most people in the North already know), but in seeing that South Koreans do not all yearn to be part of one united Korea, under the care of the North and Dear Leader. Whatever the reasoning, the effects are much the same.

On the other hand, this story claimed that South Korean pop culture has been losing its cache in the North for some time now, so maybe the crackdown is not such a big deal. But I suspect that story overstates the situation.

Anyhow, I do find it amusing that an illegal download of the blockbuster HAEUNDAE (now the fourth-biggest film of all time in Korea, with 11.4 million admissions) had the capacity to create so much trouble north of the DMZ.

More AFKN Fun

Last year, in a post about the history of AFN Korea, I talked about some websites that delve into the history of the American Forces Radio & Television Service. One of those sites I mentioned was Thomas Weston’s history of AFRTS.

Well, Mr. Weston has gone on to start a new blog all about the history of AFRTS, which includes a couple of posts about Korea so far. And there was this post of the AFKN newsroom from 1968.

I also ran across this website for the Southwest Museum of Engineering,
Communications and Computation, which features many interesting old AFRTS stories, including many from Korea. My favorite was this first-hand report on AFRS back when it was mobile, driving all over Korea. Great old pics of AFKN here.

iPhone Coming?

Stop me if you have heard this one before, but it is now being reported that the iPhone is going to come to Korea — really for real this time.

Nothing has been officially announced yet, but speculation is the iPhone will roll out by November, in some sort of partnership with KT. But you will forgive me if I do not hold my breath in anticipation.

First, the positive spin (from the WSJ story):

Industry participants said Wednesday’s decision is a big step in changing all that because it will bring more price competition to smartphone handsets and because so much software is available for the iPhone from Apple or developers rather than strictly through phone carriers.

“It basically opens a new world,” said Lee Chan-jin, a pioneer of South Korea’s software industry and chief executive officer of DreamWiz Inc., a mobile software developer and Web portal. “Korea’s cellphone software industry was sick, but I expect it to be reinvigorated with iPhone.”

Yes, the Korean telecoms’ attempts at creating app stores have been dreadful. So the competition from Apple should be invigorating.

But there is also a negative side to this change. Much like the Blackberry ruling last December, which allowed the Blackberry to be sold in Korea, no regulation or law has been changed to allow for this change in policy; the government bureaucrats just decided to start interpreting the regulations differently.

This, imho, is not a good thing. Doing business should be about following the laws of the land. Transparency. Playing games with government officials is about as opaque and murky as can be. It invites backroom deals, payoffs and all sorts of shenanigans.

So while I appreciate the government regulators taking a step forward, it is frustrating to see just how backward their thinking still is in too many ways.

A Digital Korea Blog

I just ran across the blog by Kim Chang-won, Web 2.0 Asia, which I quite liked. Chang (as he calls himself) is the co-CEO of the Internet startup TNC (which was acquired by Google Korea a year ago), and he has a real gift for explaining some of the quirkier aspects of Korea’s IT industry as well as the future of the web in Asia (although mostly Korea).

Among the posts I really like of his are this great take-down of SK’s terrible apps store, Samsung’s attempts to join the app store market, the lack of iPhone in Korea, and even an escort business map of Gangnam.

All of which remind me, if you are interested in Korea tech issues, you should also check out Channy Yun’s Korea Crunch (including an interesting post about Twitter and its Korean competitor Me2Day) and
Techno Kimchi (although this is not being updated much these days). And there is a nice overview of the top Asia tech blogs at OpenWeb.

Btw, I thought this was amusing — when I went to check out Web Standards Korea, I found this:

Billboard and Charts in Korea

I was surprised to read today that my former magazine BILLBOARD is at last coming to Korea, having signed up a local partner.

BILLBOARD is teaming up with some company called ViewLife and the Korea Entertainment Producer’s Association to produce Korea music charts and a Korean-language magazine. Good luck to them.

Has anyone ever heard of ViewLife Inc.? I have not and was unable to find any information about the company. A dubious beginning. But who knows what that really means?

KEPA, on the other hand, does have a website.

Will BILLBOARD really be able to put together a chart for Korea? When I worked for the magazine, I was always impressed at how countries like Malaysia could have a chart, but somehow this was beyond Korea (no offense to Malaysia, which is a fine place).

(Hrm… Looking at the BILLBOARD.biz website now, I see not Malaysia there anymore, but it used to be in the magazine for a while.)

Anyhow, the point is the dubious nature of the Korean music charts. Several TV stations used to keep charts, but there were so many scandals related to how they compiled their figures that most of those charts were disbanded for several year.

With the rise of digital music sales, the telecoms and Internet portals have offered a wide array of charts, but they are all so disorganized and spread out that none really offers an accurate overview of the nation’s music tastes (although I do like Bugs’ Indie New Music Chart)

For several years, the Music Industry Association of Korea (nee the Recording Industry Association of Korea) used to keep track of album sales. But with album sales declining by around 80-90 percent from 2000 to today, that became an increasingly fruitless activity.

Life became more complicated in 2002 when collecting the monies for online and digital music was taken over by the Korean Association of Phonogram Producers. This went poorly, though, as much of Korea’s music industry thought the KAPP was useless, so refused to join, and instead several private collection groups were started (ironically, one collection agency for digital revenues was bought by Soribada, the group most responsible for the rise of online file-sharing in Korea).

MIAK was finally disbanded earlier this year, replaced by the Korea Music Content Industry Association. The KMCIA is supposed to keep track of both physical and online sales in the future, but at the moment their website appears to be under construction. I have not heard from people in the Korean industry what they think of KMCIA, but hopefully it will be more successful and useful than its predecessors.

Suffice it to say, I am skeptical about anyone’s ability to put together a decent music chart any time soon. And more importantly, in this age of digital downloads, file-sharing, Myspace, background music, and more, how can we really measure the “top songs” anymore? Music has become such an abstract and amorphous idea, I do not see the benefit and need for such charts, not like there used to be in the 1980s or so. And with so much information available at everyone’s fingertips, people no longer really need the charts to find out about new music or trends. The power is (increasingly) out of the music labels hands, so what do charts matter?

iPhone? Aigo!

I really want to complain about the latest stumbling blocks facing Apple’s iPhone in Korea. Now that the iPhone appears to be squeaking past the Korea Communications Commission’s first hurdle (the WIPI non-standard), the KCC found another bureaucratic roadblock. Which leads KT journalist Kim Tong-hyung to write this great line:

The country claims itself as the mobile capital of the world, and yet it has managed to fall behind nations such as Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea in securing the planet’s hottest mobile device.

I want to complain… except I live in Spain and find myself equally unable to procure an iPhone. Very different problem over here, though. Here, Apple has a local operator (Movistar). But Movistar does not appear to have any iPhones in stock anywhere in the country. In fact, according to the comments at blogs like this one, it seems like the iPhone is out of stock around much of Europe.

I assume it has something to do with the Apple’s iPhone contracts around Europe about to end in the coming months (as mentioned in the WSJ the other day). But it is still pretty annoying.

I Want My MTV (aka, “Getting Iggy With It”)

The very gracious and insightful Edward Chun just posted a series of articles over at MTV Iggy (MTV’s Asia culture site) about the state of Korean pop music. All are very interesting and fun. You can check out the main page here.

And best of all (from my selfish perspective), he happened to use me and POP GOES KOREA as a major source for several of his articles. Not only that, but Stone Bridge agreed to let Iggy use a few excerpts from my book, like this short chapter on the singer Rain, and this one on Shin Joong-hyun.

I appear mostly in Edward’s introductory article, but if you read all his stuff, you’ll hear my voice scattered here and there (along with a lot cooler people than myself, but I still happy to be included).

And there is this very cool interview with In Sooni (it has nothing to do with my book or me, but I thought it was great).

Just so you know that Edward is no slouch, I should let you know that he has a real music background (heck, he even has a Wikipedia page). So when he is talking about the musical elements of K-Pop or whatever, he is not just yammering on; in fact, he knows what he is talking about.

Anyhow… Edward, thanks much for the kind words and the great stories.

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