TECH TALK: South Korea’s IT839: The Context

Business Weeks story provides the context for the South Korean plan:

In the past decade, the country has invested billions of dollars to make itself the world’s most wired — and wireless — nation. Today some three-quarters of South Korean households have broadband Internet hookups. Of the population of 48 million, 80% carries a mobile phone — that’s virtually everyone over the age of 12. Many of these phones are equipped with cutting-edge technology allowing the users to take photos, surf the Net, and listen to music.

But other nations are narrowing the gap. So the government has launched a program designed to propel Korea ahead of the pack. It’s called “IT839” — shorthand for the eight services, three infrastructure projects, and nine new or upgraded devices the country’s tech wizards have decided to focus on over the next five years. The effort is expected to cost the government and private industry as much as $70 billion by 2010.

What distinguishes South Korea’s effort is the intense cooperation between the IT industry and the government — in sharp contrast with the U.S., where the government devotes few resources to the development of broadband and wireless technologies. Indeed, the soul of many of Korea’s machines is not in the laboratories of Samsung Electronics Inc. or mobile operator SK Telecom, but at the state-run Electronics & Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI) in Daejon, 170 km south of Seoul.

ETRIs website outlines its objective actualizing the worlds best IT and R&D institution of the 21st century. Business Week quotes ETRI President Yim Chu Hwan: “Our role is to help develop basic and core technology and make it a new global standard. Then new products will be developed by companies in the private sector.”

Understanding what South Korea is building will give us a glimpse of what we can expect in the future. And this is the reason why their ideas on IT839 are important. Lee Goldberg writes:

[South Koreas] IT839 Strategy lays out a roadmap for both developing South Korean technological infrastructure, and for building an electronics manufacturing capability that will power the country’s economy for decades to come. And in contrast to many Western countries which are experiencing strong downward pressure on the wages of their workers, raising the per-capita income of South Koreans to US $20 k is an integral part of the stated goals of their ambitious, but realistic plan.

The IT839 [technologies]will serve as “growth engines” to fuel a regenerative cycle of investments, returns, and rising income[It provides] a solid roadmap for using the country’s existing academic, technical, and social resources in a focused, and well-targeted manner to move its electronic industry beyond its current focus on commodity memory chips and low-end consumer goods into a dominant role in several critical electronics markets.

The importance of South Koreas IT839 strategy is that is is about building not just a R&D testbed but also a path to commercialise emerging technologies. We have already seen the emergence of South Korean companies like Samsung and LG in the consumer electronics and mobiles space powered on the strength of a cutting-edge domestic market. In this context, understanding IT839 is important to get a view into what are the opportunities in tomorrows world.

Tomorrow: The Plan

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.