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March 23, 2020SOUTH KOREA’S 5G AMBITIONSBy Clara GillispieAbstractUnder President Moon Jae-in, South Korea has set an ambitioustarget to move from being “first in the world” in the race to5G to “first in global quality.” Yet, while a range of industryand government stakeholders are investing heavily in makingthis vision a reality, a number of factors are likely to weighon whether or not these efforts yield significant results.These include uncertainties about how to further acceleratedevelopment in ways that lead to better returns on investments,and about how to navigate complex geopolitical considerations,including ongoing debates about Huawei’s involvement in5G network infrastructure. Each of these areas will, in turn,require domestic stakeholders to make complex assessmentsabout potential tradeoffs and risks. Thus, this paper assessesSouth Korea’s emerging 5G era at the one-year mark, andhighlights key successes, setbacks, and ongoing challenges.Building on these findings, the paper concludes by offering severalpotential scenarios for future development, and suggestions forways forward.Key Words: Republic of Korea, 5G, global markets, innovation, HuaweiIntroductionOn April 3, 2019, South Korea became the first country in theworld to launch a nationwide 5G network. In coordination withthe Ministry of Science and ICT (MSIT), the country’s three majortelecommunication companies (telecoms)—SK Telecom, KTCorporation, and LG U —had agreed to roll-out their servicessimultaneously; this was a move designed to “avoid heatedcompetition” among the three firms while also sending amessage internationally about the innovative strengths of SouthKorean industry.1 Although critics initially derided the launch asrelatively shallow, the interim months have seen these telecomsmake substantial investments in additional infrastructure andextensive consumer marketing campaigns. As a result, SouthKorea now has close to 5 million 5G subscribers.2 And buildingon this foundation, President Moon Jae-in has articulated anambitious plan for the country to play an ever-increasing role inthe global 5G market, capturing a 15% share by 2026.3What is at stake in the race to deploy a new technical standard?As 5G has taken shape over the past decade, it has becomeincreasingly clear that its capabilities could dramatically outstripexisting standards—under some conditions, delivering speeds20 times faster than 4G LTE and with both greater capacity formanaging concurrent tasks and for providing enhanced security.4Consequentially, several successive South Korean presidentialadministrations have expressed interest in its potential tospur new economic growth, better safeguard sensitive assets,and improve overall standards of living. As has been welldocumented, President Moon Jae-in, in particular, has soughtto associate 5G’s potential with his policy agenda for inclusiveeconomic growth;5 this includes regularly noting the ways inwhich investing in 5G can contribute to creating high-quality,high-paying jobs, and even referring to the standard as “theinfrastructure for innovative growth in the Republic of Korea. ”6Yet, it would be inappropriate to paint this picture as exclusivelyrosy, and in doing so ignore anxieties that have also influenceddecision-makers. Despite the fact that South Korea regularlyranks as one the world’s most innovative economies, over thepast decade its top high-tech firms have experienced a numberof market setbacks and (with a few exceptions) South KoreanClara Gillispie is a Senior Advisor at the National Bureau of Asian Research. The views expressed are solely those of the authorand do not necessarily reflect the views of any organizations they are affiliated with. This paper is the hundred-and-twelfth inKEI’s Academic Paper Series. As part of this program, KEI commissions and distributes approximately ten papers per year onoriginal subjects of current interest to over 5,000 Korea watchers, government officials, think tank experts, and scholars aroundthe United States and the world. At the end of the year, these papers are compiled and published in KEI’s On Korea volume. Formore information, please visit www.keia.org/ aps on korea.SOUTH KOREA’S 5G AMBITIONSKorea Economic Institute of America1800 K Street, NW, Suite 300Washington, DC 20006www.keia.org1

applications developed for 4G LTE-enabled devices have failedto corner any notable share of the global market. As a partialexplanation for this phenomena, a 2016 study by MSIT citedfactors such as chronic industry underinvestment in research anddevelopment, an overly rigid regulatory environment, and a lackof quality data infrastructure as undermining the country’s abilityto take on leadership in emerging technology fields.7 A slightlydifferent (though not necessarily competing) explanation is thatin a handful of important areas, South Korean industry and policysimply bet big on what was worth prioritizing, and ultimately betwrong—with implications for lost time and market share.8The collective result of the considerations above has been thatby the time of the MSIT study’s release in 2016, both governmentand industry in South Korea were already making sizeableinvestments aimed at gaining a competitive edge via an early beton 5G. And for early adopters, the stakes of getting developmentchoices wrong can be as high as getting them right.Thus, this paper explores how South Korea is navigating itsemerging 5G era. This paper begins by noting key considerationsand stakeholders that have shaped South Korea’s 5Gdevelopment to date. It then explores early findings—includingsuccesses, challenges, and ongoing uncertainties—at the roughlyone-year mark of the launch of the country’s 5G network. Indoing so, it seeks to identify potential bottlenecks to continueddevelopment and concerns that policymakers and industry mayneed to address over the coming year. It concludes by suggestinga number of scenarios for future development and potentialways forward.Background & Key StakeholdersSouth Korea officially entered the race to 5G in 2008. Overthe next several years, successive governments entered intonumerous memorandums of understanding (MOUs) andcollaborative agreements with domestic and internationalcounterparts, ultimately with the twin goals of exploring thetechnical standard’s potential and promoting a globally agreedupon set of rules and best practices for its development.This later idea—ensuring global interoperability—is especiallycritical in a South Korean context. South Korea has the world’stwelfth largest economy despite accounting for less than 1% ofSOUTH KOREA’S 5G AMBITIONSthe global population. This achievement is due in no small part toa multi-decade emphasis by domestic industry and policymakerson export-oriented growth strategies9—importantly, strategiesthat have matched the application of industrial policy with effortsto reduce trade barriers trade and to encourage the developmentof long-term partnerships with foreign counterparts.Interoperability is especially vital over the coming decade asthe vast majority of growth in demand for digital goods andservices is anticipated to happen outside of South Korea.China, India, and the collective economies of ASEAN are allcurrently on track to realize exponential growth in the size oftheir respective digital economies, which could easily minimizethe long-term benefit of investing in standards that are used inSouth Korea but fail to align with other markets. Meanwhile,while not experiencing the same overall growth rates, theUnited States, Japan, and the European Union are anticipatedto remain at the forefront of developing and implementing nextgeneration digital architecture; they, much like South Korea,also hope that this lends them some influence in shaping howadoption proceeds globally. Thus, part of the challenge for SouthKorea is not only being the first to market, but also making thecase that South Korea’s development path has the best potentialfor good outcomes.Understanding this context, 5G development in South Koreafunctions as a complex interaction of a number of stakeholders.This includes a range of government bodies, telecoms, vendors,researchers, and other stakeholders working in industry,research, and civil society. Table 1 details these stakeholders ingreater depth, while Table 2 highlights how Moon, in particular,has envisioned engaging these stakeholders in his own flagship5G initiative, the 5G Strategy. Meanwhile, bringing togetherstakeholders from across each of these groups are a numberof government-driven and industry-driven umbrella initiatives.These include the 5G Strategy Promotion Committee (which waslaunched in 2015 to discuss updates on the state of developmentas well as to hear private sector concerns) and the 5G Forum(which acts as a venue for public-private collaboration on specificprojects). Seoul also regularly seeks to elevate attention to 5Gissues within larger strategic dialogues, such as its recent ASEANRepublic of Korea Commemorative Summit and during variousAPEC ministerials and working group meetings.102

Table 1. South Korea’s domestic 5G ecosystemCategoryRoles and specific actorsBlue HouseAgenda setting and strategic coordination. While research into 5G was officially launched under PresidentLee Myung-bak, Presidents Park Geun-Hye and Moon Jae-in have played important agenda-setting rolesin how the country’s 5G development has unfolded. Official committees championed by the Blue House,such as the Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, have also adopted, advanced,and redirected 5G development priorities, such as by encouraging greater focus on needs linked toartificial intelligence.Government MinistriesGrant making, regulation, external stakeholder coordination, and other development roles. The Moonadministration has singled out that at least ten operate in this space, including the Ministry of Trade,Industry and Energy; the Ministry of Economy and Finance; the Ministry of Employment and Labor; andothers, with the Ministry of Science and ICT often empowered as a coordinating body.National AssemblyOver the past decade, South Korea’s legislative body has played both a targeted role in 5G development(e.g. providing tax incentives for developers, allocating budgets for ministry projects) and a broaderfacilitating role, such as through passing or otherwise revising laws to address potential barriers tosuccessful commercialization.CarriersUltimately responsible for the physical infrastructure associated with 5G networks (such as base stationsand core equipment) as well as operating data services and plans related to their use. KT Corporation, SKTelecom, and LG U are the three major players in this space for 5G.VendorsProduce base stations and other network equipment; vendors who provide various equipment for SouthKorea’s 5G network architecture include Samsung as well as non-Korean firms such as Ericsson, Nokia,Qualcomm, Intel, and (more controversially) Huawei.Research InstitutesUniversities such as Seoul National University and Hanyang University are undertaking large-scale R&Dprojects related to 5G-enabled technologies, such as for digital healthcare. Think tanks such as KDI andKIEP also have formal and informal advisory roles in evaluating public- and private-sector approaches andoffering their own recommendations.Additional Private Sector PartnersHyundai and other chaebols are investing heavily in developing specific products and services built on 5G,such as autonomous vehicles. While small and medium enterprises have long struggled to gain ground inSouth Korea’s high-tech space, increasing their participation in and access to 5G technologies is a statedgoal of the Moon administration’s 5G Strategy. And, while many of the products and services currentlyon the market target business-to-consumer sales, business-to-business 5G products is anticipated to bean important growth area in the coming years, which could spur on new kinds of firms as well as creativepartnership arrangements.OthersOthers with more episodic involvement include labor unions, trade associations, and civil society groups(who may have a specific focus on information technology or who are otherwise engaged in fields wherenew 5G-enabled technologies are being proposed to address systemic needs, i.e. eldercare and otherhealthcare). Examples include the Federation of Korean Industries, the American Chamber of Commerce inKorea, and the Korean Federation of Trade Unions, among others.SOUTH KOREA’S 5G AMBITIONS3

Table 2. President Moon’s “5G Strategy”FOCUS ON FIVE “CORE SERVICES” & TEN “CORE INDUSTRIES” Services: Immerse content, autonomous vehicles, smart manufacturing, smart cities, and digital healthcare. Industries: Next-generation smartphones, network equipment, information security, edge computing, vehicle-to-everything communication,robots, drones, intelligent CCTV, wearable devices, and virtual and augmented reality headsets.AIMSMETHODSInvest in the public sectorSupport demonstration of the five core servicesSupport demand creationDeploy 5G in public servicesCreate a 5G-based smart cityEncourage private investmentProvide tax credits and other fiscal incentivesEstablish 5G testbeds and demonstration infrastructureSupport SME efforts to deploy 5G technologiesSupport immersive content marketSupport productivity innovations in leading industriesSupport greater utilization through“system maintenance”Reduce costs and improve flexibility in service plansSecure radio wave resources and improve regulationsCreate safest user environmentSupport regulatory innovationBridge digital divides and protect usersEstablish a domestic 5G industrial baseSecure global leading technologiesStrengthen the competitiveness of the information security industry in South KoreaEstablish a foundation for a 5G Korean WaveSupport the establishment of a 5G startup ecosystemSupport South Korean industries in“going global”Promote globalization of 5G servicesTake the lead in global 5G standardizationAlign 5G policymaking with international cooperation initiativesSource: Ministry of Science and ICT, “Science, Technology & ICT Newsletter (NO.41),” ntentsView.do?cateId msse44&artId 2009058Collectively, these efforts represent what is to some extent agamble. They are a bet on the idea that the time, effort, andresources spent on 5G development will be worth it given that,ultimately, there are no guarantees. And while South Korea hasbeen criticized for not moving quickly enough on structuralreforms that can help to better meet its development goals, eventhe most careful planning can be derailed or turn out to be basedfaulty assumptions. The next section, thus, examines the currentstate-of-play in this bet.SOUTH KOREA’S 5G AMBITIONSSouth Korea’s 5g Era at the One-Year MarkBringing 5G to ScaleTo date, has South Korea’s early bet on 5G paid off? In terms ofbringing a domestic network to scale, it has been a resoundingsuccess. As of the end of 2019, 5G services are available in 85South Korean cities, and the Moon administration has set atarget of reaching 100% domestic coverage within the next 2-3years. And, as Map 1 illustrates, the country’s major telecomshave rolled out significant infrastructure across areas of South4

Korea, which Strategy Analytics has estimated covers areaswhere 90% of the country’s population resides.11 Though pressreporting from the first six months in particular was beset withcomplaints of spotty coverage and lower-than-expected speeds,this is not necessarily unheard of in early stage deployment.Moreover, such shortcomings seem likely to decrease asdevelopers follow through with additional planned investmentsin system improvements. Indeed, by 2023, the government aloneis expected to have invested a total of 30 trillion won into SouthKorea’s 5G ecosystem.12Alongside this, KT Corporation, SK Telecom, and LG U haveeach reported that their commercial 5G subscribers are burningthrough data plans at significantly higher rates than their 4GLTE counterparts. An August 2019 report released by StrategyAnalytics and based on data from MSIT noted that the average5G subscriber in South Korea was using 2.6 times as much data asthe average LTE user13—suggesting a substantial shift in behaviorand a positive response to the new capabilities and contentafforded by 5G plans and devices.Map 1. 5G Deployments in South Korea as of January 2020Source: Ookla, LLC, “Ookla 5G Map,” Speedtest.net https://www.speedtest.net/ookla-5g-mapA critical caveat, however, is the extent to which South Korea’stelecoms have sought to recruit early subscribers throughheavily subsidizing unlimited data plans and new devices whilealso providing gaming and other services for free. As noted inseveral author interviews conducted in Seoul in October 2019,it is unclear how sustainable these subsidized benefits are forSOUTH KOREA’S 5G AMBITIONSthe major telecoms. It is also unclear if commercial subscribersmight dial-back their usage absent these perks unless a new“killer app” emerges and which presents a compelling reason topay a premium for unlimited 5G plans. Most analysts seem toagree that so far, we have yet to see such an app.145

Thus, while high early subscriber numbers can lead to knock-onbenefits (particularly if developers view 5G as having an attractive,large consumer base worth catering to with investments innew products), it is far from certain what the continued speedand enthusiasm for additional consumer adoption might be.Meanwhile, scholars at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies havenoted that a crucial next step in developing a healthy domesticfoundation is seeing business-to-business related usage take off.According to a global survey of CEO views, business-to-businessservices are expected to be the most significant potential driverof returns on investment from the new standard, and so growthin the numbers of these kinds of market participants could read asa very positive sign.15 However, while efforts to expand businessto-business usage are currently underway, they are assumed tobe in initial stages and it is too soon to assess their progress.Will 5G Usher in an Era of Inclusive Economic Growth?South Korea’s early bet on 5G was at least partially intended toadvance a more positive narrative about the country’s economicoutlook and growth potential. Yet, in late November 2019, theFinancial Times reported that South Korea was on track for “oneof its worst two-year growth periods in more than half a century,”with growth rates on par with those witnessed during the globalfinancial crisis.16 Even a narrower focus on sectors closely linkedwith 5G remains relatively discouraging. For example, whileSamsung has touted that it shipped nearly 7 million Galaxy5G smartphones in 2019, its own financial reporting throughOctober nonetheless showed that year-on-year profits from itsmobile business were continuing to decline sharply.17Ultimately, a number of factors contributed to this overallpicture—including ongoing fallout from the U.S.-China tradeconflict, a depressed consumer chip market, and (debatably)domestic wage hikes and overtime restrictions that undercutprivate sector productivity.18 Yet, the lack of a clear near-termeconomic bounce from the country’s 5G launch does raisequestions about whether the Moon administration’s 5G Strategy will be enough to overcome these negative trend lines.This is perhaps particularly concerning as several elements of thestrategy overlap with broader areas of economic policymakingwherein the Moon administration’s approaches have beencriticized for failing to deliver notable returns.19 Meanwhile,with several other economies rolling out or expanding theirown nationwide 5G networks in 2020, South Korea’s relativeadvantage as a first mover is likely to diminish over the courseof the year.20SOUTH KOREA’S 5G AMBITIONSIt is perhaps deeply unfair to assess 5G’s economic contributionsat the one-year mark. Indeed, the Moon administration’s ownstrategy sketches out a timeline that envisions the most dramaticresults unfolding over a seven-year timeframe and with manyof the government’s big projects and other substantial pusheskicking off only during the 2021-23 period. However, as wasunderscored in numerous interviews conducted in Seoul inOctober 2019, the lack of obvious near-term financial returnsalong with a sense of already strained balance sheets among thecountry’s telecoms and technology firms, undercut the privatesector case for taking big risks on long-term investments.21Such private sector investment is something that the Moonadministration is counting on to set off a larger chain reactionthat puts the country at the forefront of delivering innovative,globally competitive products, ultimately revitalizing thecountry’s economic growth. And, as the next section will explore,this appetite for taking on new risks could be further undercut byseveral geopolitical factors that may weigh on 5G development.Geopolitics Takes Center StageSouth Korea is one of the most trade-dependent country’s in theworld, something that comes into play on multiple fronts whenit comes to the country’s 5G strategies. Not only are exportsenvisioned as a critical engine of the country’s economy, butSouth Korea also relies heavily on imports to meet its needs forvarious materials used in high-tech manufacturing. This meansthat when global geopolitics and trade seemingly come intoconflict, Seoul can feel that it is between a rock and a hard place.And over the past year, three geopolitical topics in particularhave loomed especially large: Huawei, South Korea-Japan tradetensions, and complicated South Korea-U.S. relations.Wither Huawei?A potentially severe challenge to South Korea’s long-term growthand development strategy is the ongoing global debate about therole of Huawei in 5G development. In December 2018, the UnitedStates announced sanctions against Huawei, and since then hasimplored its allies and partners to not allow the company intotheir networks—even going so far as to suggest that the UnitedStates might scale back its information sharing and networkintegration with countries that did not comply. While the globalresponse to U.S. advocacy has been varied (and undercut byinconsistent messaging from Washington), Japan and Australiahave committed to similar bans. Several others have argued thattechnical safeguards short of an outright ban allow them to feel6

secure in selectively using Huawei, with the United Kingdom inparticular voicing strong opposition to taking further restrictivemeasures against the Chinese company.Of South Korea’s three major telecoms, only LG U uses Huaweibase stations and equipment in its 5G infrastructure.22 Althoughexact numbers are difficult to verify, the state-run ChinaInternet Information Center estimates that 25,000 Huawei 5Gbase stations have been deployed within South Korea via thecompany’s association with LG U ; other reporting has placedthese numbers between 15,000 and 20,000.23 And while it wouldbe easy to interpret these numbers as suggesting relativelyshallow ties, South Korean firms have a range of partnershipswith Chinese stakeholders, in which being seen as publiclyspurning Huawei could have ripple effects. In the past severalyears, China has emerged as South Korea’s most significanttrading partner, and Huawei in particular has made a largenumber of 5G investments that are either in South Korea orthat involve purchases from South Korean firms. SK Telecomand KT Corporation are also currently pursuing ventures withinChina.24 Understanding this, both advocates for and againstSouth Korea reducing its trading reliance on China have arguedthat it is ultimately unclear if taking a harder national stancealong the lines of what the U.S., Australia, and Japan have donecould provoke Chinese retaliation against private South Koreanfirms—similar to what happened after the deployment of theTerminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defensebattery in 2016.In the meantime, both policy and industry leaders in South Koreahave argued that the country’s sensitive networks are isolatedfrom commercial assets (which are the only assets currentlyusing Huawei products), and Seoul has also committed to notusing Huawei in defense and intelligence sharing systems.However, Trump administration officials as well as severalMembers of Congress have argued that such proposed inbetween measures do not satisfy their concerns.25 To that end,in early January 2020, Senator Tom Cotton introduced a bill intothe U.S. Congress that would formally make good on earlier U.S.threats to prohibit intelligence sharing with countries that “allowHuawei to operate their 5G networks.”26 The prospects of thisor a similar bill passing the U.S. Congress are unclear—thoughpassage would represent a substantial blow to Seoul’s efforts tomaintain its tenuous status quo.SOUTH KOREA’S 5G AMBITIONSSouth Korea-Japan Trade TensionsAnother concern that could undercut South Korea’s long-termcompetitiveness in 5G has been the general decline in SouthKorea-Japan relations over the past year. Amidst ongoing bilateraldisputes over historical issues and a seemingly rising impassebetween the Moon and Abe administrations on a number offronts, in July 2019 Japan’s Ministry of Economic, Trade andIndustry removed South Korea from its list of countries that areexempted from requiring export approvals to purchase certainhigh-tech materials. Notably, these materials include thosethat are critical in the manufacturing of smartphone displaysand semiconductor chips, two industries at the heart of Moon’s5G strategy.Both sides dispute the proximate cause for the de-listing. And inDecember 2019, Tokyo walked back restrictions on some of thematerials impacted by its original decision, and talks are ongoingon how to fully resolve the dispute between the two countries.However, Seoul has referred to these measures as a “low-leveleasing” rather than as a clear resolution.28 Furthermore, if talksbreak down, a sustained de-listing could be devastating for SouthKorea: by some estimates, Japan is responsible for producing 7090% of the critical materials that the original de-listing impacts.29This level of dependence makes it difficult for South Koreanmanufacturers to simply diversify their supply chains if Japanfollows through with denying South Korean approval requests.As stakeholders in both countries have been quick to note, anactual rejection of a South Korean approval request has yet tohappen and may never happen. Industries are also assumed tohave modest stockpiles that could temper at least the immediateimpact of any rejection.30 Still, this case once again underscoresthe vulnerability of South Korea’s economy to internationalconsiderations that can shape the potential effectiveness of itsdevelopment strategies. And it is also suggestive of a potentialmissed opportunity—an additional complicating factor thatmakes South Korea and Japan less likely to deepen theircollaboration around shaping global norms and standards forhow new 5G-enabled technologies are advanced and deployed.Spoiler or Advocate? U.S. Engagement with South Korea on 5GTensions around Huawei represent only one facet of complexU.S.-South Korea relations. And undeniably, differences ofopinion on political and economic issues have regularly found7

these two allies at odds over the past half-century—even asthe two have also found ways to expand the overall scope anddepth of strategic collaboration. Yet, over the course of 20172019 in particular, deep divides among the Moon and Trumpadministrations have left some corners of Seoul concerned thatthe United States is pursuing an overly transactional approach tothe alliance, one where disagreements over burden-sharing andthe future of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement have limitedthe breathing room for pursuing Seoul’s own ambitions for thealliance. Such concerns can raise additional questions aboutthe extent to which the United States is truly a partner and allyin finding ways to address challenges specific to South Korea’sinterests, such as how the country might expand its share of theIndo-Pacific’s emerging 5G market.Yet when it comes to 5G in particular, the United States remainsan essential partner in supporting South Korea’s broaderstrategic interests. By some estimates, the two countries aloneare anticipated to account for up to 75% of the world’s 5Gmarket by the end of 2020, and South Korean vendors such asSamsung enjoy a high degree of competitiveness within theU.S. market due in part to favorable bilateral trade conditions.31Meanwhile, both countries have looked to identify ways tosupport one another’s interests in 5G via how they engagedwith multilateral strategic fora. An example of this was whenthe United States joined with South Korea in focusing APEC’s60th telecommunications working group meeting to explore howregional partners might work together on reducing barriers to 5Gdeployment, including through championing new collaborationson bringing smart cities and autonomous vehicles to scale.More work remains to be done, as was underscored inconversations with Gwanhoo Lee, Chair of the Department ofInformation Technology and Analytics at American University.While the United States and South Korea have a robust, extensivehistory of Track 2.0 dialogues and industry collaborations ontechnology and innovation policy issues, Track 1.0 dialogueshave only begun to scratch the surface over the past decade.32Moreover, in some cases, these dialogues have also beenallowed to atrophy. As South Korea turns its attention to theyear ahead, both countries should identify ways to reinvigoratetheir partnership, and view 5G as not only a source of potentialconflict or competition, but also as an opportunity to deepentheir joint cooperation.SOUTH KOREA’S 5G AMBITIONSLooking AheadUltimately, the landscape that South Kore

the United States and the world. At the end of the year, these papers are compiled and published in KEI's On Korea volume. . Korea now has close to 5 million 5G subscribers.2 And building on this foundation, President Moon Jae-in has articulated an . a 2016 study by MSIT cited factors such as chronic industry underinvestment in research and

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