South Korea is an interesting country. The nation has gone from a per capita GDP of $87 in the 1950s to $17,580 at purchasing power parity in 2003. That's incredible, and it's a process being repeated in the largest concentrations of humanity in the world, China and India. It's a revolution of historic proportions that will be the central issue in international politics for the next 100 years.
What's the IT angle? Well, South Korea's networking infrastructure makes America's look positively minor league. Three out of every four South Koreans have a mobile phone, and that's a number that includes children and the elderly, so for all intents and purposes, <i>everyone</i> has a mobile phone. Out of a population of 48 million, 31 million have access to the Web, most via high-speed connections.
I remember when Samsung was a vendor of low-end hardware that competed in discount stores. Today, most of the phones available for Verizon Wireless at the local Best Buy carry a South Korean brand name, such as Samsung and LG. At the ITU conference in Geneva last year, I noticed that most of the high-end broadband networking hardware was made by South Korean companies. That makes sense, as having the most wired and techology-enthusiastic population in the world (next to Japan) is bound to be a great test bed for new products. Lots of American companies seemed to have noticed that, which was why many also carried logos from companies like Microsoft.
Having a local population that is enthusiastic about the products you make is helpful. I often wondered why Germany had such a large number of automobile vendors for a "small" country (of 82 million), but then my German friend related to me that Germans love cars. Japanese electronics companies lead the world because the Japanese love electronics, and it looks like that same cultural habit exists in South Korea.
Other advantages exist, such as South Koreas high population densities. South Korea has 474 people per square kilometer versus 30 per square kilometer in the U.S., which means it costs less to wire up every South Korean than it does every American. Still, approximately 80 percent of the population lives in "urban areas" in both countries, so I'm skeptical as to whether that's the primary reason for South Korea's networking success.
What has South Korea done right, and what can Americans learn from their example? Share your theories in TalkBack.