By Cho Jin-seo
The government partially lifted its ban on the Canadian-made BlackBerry handsets in time for the visit of the handset maker's chief executive to an OECD Ministerial Meeting to be held in Seoul next month.
The ban on BlackBerry has been criticized as a typical example of a non-tariff barrier by foreign businessmen here. The government hopes that this action will save face in the upcoming international conference.
SK Telecom, the largest mobile operator, said Tuesday that the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) approved sales of Canadian-made BlackBerry phones on May 1, for business users only.
The sudden acceptance was revealed ahead of the Research In Motion (RIM) CEO's visit to the OECD meeting of Internet ministers scheduled for June 17-18, where Jim Balsillie, the head of RIM, is invited as a guest speaker.
``We are the host country of the OECD meeting and officials were concerned about bad publicity on the BlackBerry issue,'' said Suh Sung-bong, an official of Foreign Investment Ombudsman, a governmental agency in international trade. ``This was a swift action from the Lee Myung-bak government. We hope this can give a friendly signal to foreign investors.''
The KCC and RIM were not available for comment Tuesday, but the Canadian business circle seemed dissatisfied.
``As always you need to read the fine print. The fine print says you can only sell BlackBerry to corporations. Canadians will not be happy about the blatant discrimination targeted against our signature product, BlackBerry,'' said Terry Tuharsky, former chairman of Canadian Chamber of Commerce. The organization has been fighting against the non-tariff barrier on foreign handsets such as BlackBerry and Apple's iPhone over the past two years.
``What if Canada made Hyundai only sell cars to corporations, and not to regular consumers? How can a pro business government continue such discrimination towards foreign businesses?''
SK Telecom plans to sell a few models from July or August in package deals, at a flat rate of 26,000 won per month per unit.
BlackBerry is a hybrid mobile phone and palm-sized computer, specialized in e-mailing and personal scheduling. First introduced in 1997, it has become an essential tool for businesspeople around the world because of its ability to receive e-mails real-time. RIM says that there are more than 14 million subscribers in the world.
Korea is one of few countries where it is not available, partly because it did not meet a technical specification imposed by the government, which was set up in favor of domestic phone makers such as Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics.
In addition, local mobile operators had little incentive to introduce the BlackBerry here as the need for mobile e-mailing was not very high, as the country has Internet access on every other corner of the street in the form of Internet cafes and public PCs.
The sudden change of the government's attitude came as the KCC is to play host to the OECD Ministerial Meeting on the Future Internet Economy, where 47 ministers and dozens of influential business figures will visit Seoul. Balsillie is designated as a panel member for a round-table session.
The KCC forces mobile phones to carry a Korean-made software standard called WIPI (Wireless Internet Platform for Interoperability). This time, it bent the rule on behalf of BlackBerry by categorizing it as a PDA (personal digital assistant), not as a mobile phone.
BlackBerry is frequently sold in business-to-business deals in other countries, packaged with corporate e-mail servers. Such practices are very rare in Korean firms and companies usually do not issue phones to their employees.