By Cho Jin-seo
Coal, pulp and English teachers are Canada's main export items to South Korea. But the Canadian Chamber of Commerce wants to add a more high-tech product on the list _ the Blackberry mobile phones.
Thanks to its convenient e-mailing function, Blackberry, made by Canada's Research in Motion, has become a global hit product for financial workers with more than 11 million sold worldwide. But its sales are practically banned in South Korea because of the government's regulations on mobile phone software and its Korean partner's lukewarm response of such smartphones.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce this week started staging a carefully-measured protest against the Ministry of Information and Communication, saying that it is discriminating against Blackberry. If Korea continues to ban the sales of the Canadian gadget, it argues, the issue may hamper, or even break the negotiation of the free trade agreement between the two nations.
``Blackberry is the signature high-tech product of Canada,'' Terry Tuharsky, the chairman of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Korea, said in his meeting with The Korea Times on Tuesday, which was one of his numerous interviews with Korean and foreign press this week.
``I want to ask you how Korean politicians will act if Canada does not allow Samsung or Hyundai to sell their products,'' he said, adding that ``the storm is brewing'' in Canada already.
The Ministry of Information and Communications enforces mobile phones to carry a Korean-made software standard called WIPI (Wireless Internet Platform for Interoperability). According to Telus International Korea, the distributor of Blackberry in Korea, it is virtually impossible for Blackberry to have WIPI because it is built on a more advanced software platform.
The government often alters such regulations when there are strong requests from industries or the public. But in the case of the Blackberry, neither the telecom industry nor ordinary citizens seem to have had the urge to persuade the government, though there have been protests from workers of multinational companies who frequently travel between countries with their Blackberry.
``We had to consider whether there was enough demand from Korean consumers before introducing foreign-made mobile phones'' said Cindy Kang, spokesperson for SK Telecom, the largest telecom operator. ``We postponed the launching of Blackberry after carefully assessing the market condition, profitability and the WIPI issue.''
Internet-capable Smartphones indeed have had a very limited market in South Korea, partly because of the nation's well established broadband Internet connectivity. Also, in other nations, Blackberry is usually sold in business-to-business deals, packaged with corporate e-mail servers, but such practices are very rare in Korean firms.
There are encouraging signs, however. Samsung Electronics has been tapping the business-targeted smartphone market with its ``Blackjack'' handset since July, and the firm said it sold 27,000 units until November, which Tuharsky of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce believes to be the lost sales of Blackberry.
Telus, the distributor of Blackberry, admits that commercial success is not guaranteed even if the government lifts the ban. But at the very least, it will help open the business phone market, which has been nonexistent in Korea, said Shin Sang-yul, senior executive of Telus International Korea.
``The Korean mobile market is driven by young people. We want to create a new `mobile office' market,'' he said. ``We hope the Ministry will realize that the additional value created by businessmen who use Blackberry will be much greater than the benefit of prohibiting it.''