(467) Korea Online
By Andrei Lankov
On May 15, 1982, a computer in the Computer Science Department of Seoul National University was connected to a computer in the Institute of Electronic Technology. Several months later, in January 1983, a third computer joined the network. It was located at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). Thus, the network known as SDN was born, and most reference books mention May 15, 1983 as the first birthday of the Korean Internet. In 1986, Korea acquired its top level domain, .kr (officially registered in July).
As was the case in other countries, the Korean networks were initially not accessible to fee-paying individual clients. But this was soon to change.
In 1984, Korean engineers designed the first programs for sending and receiving e-mail in Korea. The opportunities of the new technology were easy to grasp, and soon afterwards Dacom launched a commercial Korean language e-mail service. This was an event that had great consequences for Korean Internet history.
However, during the decade 1985-1995 Korea was not connected to the worldwide Internet community _ computer users used nationwide networks instead. Nonetheless, toward the end of that period Korea was already a very much-wired society, even though at that stage the majority of Korean users could not connect to the World Wide Web.
There were three such Korea-wide networks by the mid-1990s: Hitel, Chollian and Now Nuri. Chollian grew out of the Dacom e-mail service. Soon, other similar nationwide networks developed, with the Hitel commercial network being probably the best known in the early 1990s (eventually it overtook Chollian, becoming the largest local network in Korea). These nation-wide networks came to be known as ``PC communications.'' Only in 1994-1995 were users of the local networks given an opportunity to connect to the WWW.
Still, by the early 1990s, the ``PC communications'' networks already had a large amount of useful content. One could read the major Korean dailies and weeklies online, take part in discussion groups on countless topics, and access economic and political information of all kinds. In other words, for the early 1990s this was a good system, even though it was confined to the Korean borders (with the exception of e-mails, which could be sent to any connected computer worldwide).
Connection to those networks was through dial-up modems plugged into the phone outlet. The spread of the system began around 1989, at the time when nearly all Korean houses had a phone connection. The modem speed was slow, with a 14 kbps modem being standard in 1994-95. This type of system handled simple texts reasonably well, but any graphics created a serious challenge for the slow connection. Since the modem had utilized the telephone line, one's phone was switched off when the connection was on.
Furthermore, the connection did not come cheaply. In 1994, a subscriber was expected to pay 2-3,000 won per online hour. Even a moderate user, spending an hour or so online per day, would pay some 90,000 won a month, a large sum in the days when the average salary was half its present day-level.
Still, the popularity of this ``Proto-Internet''was remarkable. In 1992, there were 62,000 PC communication subscribers in Korea. By late 1995, on the eve of the mass switch to the global Internet, this number reached 1.3 million subscribers. In other words, in four years the number increased twenty-fold. In 1995, some 773,000 Korean subscribers used the Hitel system, 236,000 users were Chollian subscribers, and 98,000 had opted for Now Nuri.
The ``real'' internet arrived in Korea around 1995. In the first stage, local networks began to provide connection to the WWW for an additional fee. In 1995 it was typically 1,800 won an hour, on top of the normal connection fees _ not a small burden for the average user. A 1995 study indicated that roughly 20 percent of the networks' users opted to pay additional fees for the WWW connections.
Around 1996 a direct connection to the World Wide Web became the norm, pushing the old nationwide networks into oblivion. Most of those networks restructured themselves to become internet access providers.
Another major breakthrough happened shortly afterwards, in the late 1990s when Korea became one of the first countries to switch to broadband use. Until the late 1990s, connection to the Internet was only through dial-up modems, with the maximum speed limited to 64 kbps (the real speed, of course, was always lower).
During the period in which the broadband connection was not available in most homes, the ubiquitous PC bangs flourished. The PC rooms soon became the major centers for computer gaming, a favorite pastime of Korean teenagers from the late 1990s onwards.
The first broadband services for the average householder became available in 1998, and the number of broadband connections exploded, reaching four million in 2000 and eight million in 2001. By 2003 the switch to broadband access was complete. The scene was set for an Internet revolution which changed the lifestyle of Koreans to a very large extent. But that is another story.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St.Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul.