“Why can’t I get a Blackberry or an iPhone?” I asked the young man in the shiny silver suit at the mobile phone store. His reply was the Korean arm X, made by crossing the arms in front of oneself to say ‘no’ in an almost protective manner, as if such a question was dangerous.
Although this wasn’t an actual answer to my question, his response spoke volumes. Essentially, his gesture implied “not possible.”
At another store I was told it was a technology issue – something about chips or software. Another answer that I couldn’t completely swallow. My current phone (made by LG), although not a smart phone, works in all of the places I have travelled to or changed planes in over the last year: the United States (including Hawaii, Guam and Washington, D.C.), the Philippines, France, Indonesia and Japan, so I doubt compatibility has anything to do with it.
According to the Apple website, the iPhone is available in such technological backwaters as Croatia, Mali, Botswana, the Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic and Honduras, to name just a few of the poorer countries on the list. With this in mind, I am completely dismissing the technology excuse in the most wired nation on the planet (and home to two of the world’s top five mobile phone producers).
That leaves a much more sinister conclusion and one that I didn’t want to reach: Protectionism.
While protectionism is officially defined as a government policy designed to restrict the import of foreign goods, it could be argued that under the rule of Lee Myungbak, a former CEO of an affiliate of one of the nation’s biggest conglomerates and an avowed believer in laissez-faire economic policies, the chaebol are the government.
Thus, if LG and Samsung want to deny the right of a company to sell their competing goods in Korea, so be it. But what would be the purpose of preventing tech-savvy Korean consumers from having state-of-the-art gadgets just because they are produced by foreign firms? It’s simply a matter of buying time so the domestic producers can come up with a comparable product (or 10) that could compete on an equal footing with, in this case, the Blackberry from Canada (first released in 1999) and the iPhone from the United States (on the market since June 2007).
Two years later and several versions of LG and Samsung touchscreen smart phones later and the foreign products still aren’t available.
Rumors pop up again and again about the impending release of the iPhone through a partnership of Japan’s NTT DoCoMo and Korea’s KTF, but they remain, as yet, just rumors. (The Apple website makes no mention of Korea as a potential market.)
Worldwide, Apple has sold more than 21 million iPhones. Research in Motion say they now have more than 28 million people using the “Crackberry,” as the Blackberry is affectionately known among its addicted users.
Samsung and LG phones are readily available in the United States and Canada, so why the disparity? It seems, despite the rhetoric of Korean politicians decrying protectionism as “dangerous during an economic downturn,” as President Lee did during the G-20 summit this past spring, it is okay to practice “selective protectionism.”
In a keynote speech at the financial crisis meeting in Washington, D.C., Lee said, “Especially at times of great economic difficulty, it is tempting to resort to protectionism.” He added, “Protectionism in one country triggers protectionism in other countries. As a result, economic conditions worsen for the whole world… For this reason, I would like to propose that G-20 countries make a ‘Stand-Still’ declaration on trade and investment restrictions.”
In his 18 months in office, Lee has done everything he could to roll back the policies of his predecessor in order to return the chaebol to their former levels of power. Late President Roh Moo-hyun remembered the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the collapse of several large conglomerates (and the near-collapse of many more) and put policies in place to protect the people from the chaebol and to protect the chaebol from themselves. Lee, on the other hand, believes the oft-repeated maxim heard during financial crises: “It’ll be different this time.”
If Korea wishes to be a leader on the world stage, it should continue to pry open its markets to more and more foreign products. Fair competition promotes innovation. When the pace of innovation slows in Korea and the best products are not available, it is the consumer who suffers in the end.
So what’s it going to be, President Lee? An arm X to say “not possible” or a clean break from the policies of the past, when the young republic wasn’t among the world’s top 15 largest economies?
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