What Korea’s Electronics Industry Has Done

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An Overview of Five Decades of Growth and Development in Korea’s Key Industry
Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

“At age 15, I set my heart on learning; at 30, I firmly took my stand; at 40, I had no delusions; at 50, I knew the mandate of heaven; at 60, my ear was attuned to the truth; at 70, I followed my heart's desire without overstepping the boundaries of what was right." This is what Confucius says in the Analects, expounding on how he had lived and what he had found at each major turning point of his life.

A Confucius quote may sound surreal when we talk about science and technology. But we can’t afford to completely ignore this saying when we have to seriously look back on the history of a person or the achievements of a country. History is a record of encounters and achievements accumulated over years. At major turning points, we naturally reminisce about them to remind ourselves of how admirably or poorly we have performed, or to plan a bright future based on what we have done.

When a person turns 50, we naturally consider him or her mature, certainly with profound wisdom and unshakable beliefs. When it comes to economic growth, any industrial sector deserves to be proud of what it has achieved.

Korea marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of its electronics industry in 2009. Fifty years is a long period during which the world has witnessed tremendous changes the way people live their lives, which in first world countries have become comfortable and convenient to a remarkable degree. The electronics industry can plan a much more successful future by looking back seriously on what it has accomplished in the past five decades.

A Series of 12 Stories

To celebrate the 50 years of Korea’s electronics industry, the Korea IT Times is going to carry a series of 12 articles, including this story, from its July 2009 issue. This series is designed to help those in the electronics industry recollect proudly the outstanding achievements they have made in the past, with which have greatly contributed to helping the country make rapid economic progress and eventually emerge as one of the world’s leading economies.

First Radios Produced in 1959

Joseph John Thompson discovered the electron in 1899

Joseph John Thompson discovered the electron in 1899

It was Sir Joseph John Thompson, a British physicist, who discovered the electron in 1899. Since then, electronics has made enormous contributions to making remarkable progress in science and technology and revolutionizing the lives of mankind, and has naturally become a household word. In 1959, GoldStar (present-day LG Electronics) succeeded in assembling vacuum tube AM radios for the first time in Korea. The country’s first radios were then exported to the United States and Hong Kong. GoldStar’s manufacture of radios is considered a historic event that opened the era of Korea’s electronics industry, whose idea had been conceived much earlier.

Back in 1885, about 50 years after Samuel Morse invented a single-wire telegraph system and Morse code and about 10 years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, Korea, then still a hermit kingdom, installed its first telecommunications facilities. The country then launched its first telephone services in 1902, beginning the full-fledged operation of telecommunications services.

Government’s Policy Incentives

Korea's first electronic home appliances

Korea's first electronic home appliances

After it produced Korea’s first AM radios in 1959, GoldStar started the production of telephones in 1962 and black-and-white TV sets in 1966. These two basic electronic home appliances changed the Korean people’s style of living in a revolutionary way, sparked the development of the country’s electronics industry and put the country’s R&D and manufacturing industries on the path of rapid progress.

In December 1966, the Korean government finally designated the electronics industry as a strategic export industry and decided to nurture it by providing various kinds of policy incentives. This, of course, boosted the morale of the industrialists and prompted progress of the industry. As part of its efforts to implement electronics policies, the government invited Dr. Kim Wan-hee, then professor of electronics engineering at Columbia University, to give advice on developing Korea’s electronics industry, a fledgling industrial sector. He is now called “Godfather of the Korean electronics industry,” for his role in helping the country chart the future course for its electronics industry.

Since then, Korea has seen rapid growth in the electronics industry in ensuing decades in such a way that made people’s lives more convenient and fueled their desire for more state-of-the-art equipment and gadgets. Mass production of electronics appliances in the country became possible as various industrial parks, including Gumi National Industrial Complex, were built in the 1970s, when the country’s full-fledged production of semiconductor chips began.

Samsung 64K DRAM

Samsung 64K DRAM

In the early 1980s, the country laid the nationwide foundation for creating an information society and Samsung Semiconductor succeeded in developing 64K DRAM. It was in 1984 when Korea Mobile Telecom (present-day SK Telecom) began providing Korea’s first mobile telephone service. Afterwards, 16M DRAM chip, HDTV, TFT-LCD, CDMA mobile communication devices were developed in the early 1990s. Later in the 1990s, Samsung Electronics succeeded in mass-producing 256M DRAM chip for the first time in the world. Korea Telecom cleared the way for the wide use and rapid development of the Internet by launching Kornet service, the country’s first commercial application of the Internet service.

In the 2000s, broadband communications and convergence technologies were introduced to build nationwide ubiquitous networks; IPTV was developed; KT and SK Telecom began WiBro services; and first-generation intelligence and cognitive robots were also developed.

What Has Been Done and What Lies Ahead

Korea’s electronics industry has grown rapidly despite difficult circumstances in such a short period of time thanks to the government’s unsparing support and engineers’ uninterrupted research efforts. "The electronics industry is indisputably the most important strategic industry of the country, given the adverse environment in which there aren’t sufficient resources and the nature of the industry in which technologies, knowledge and labor are integrated," once said Rha Kyung-soo, vice chairman of the Electronics and Information Club of Korea (Korea IT Times June 2009 issue, p 71).

This series will elaborate on how the electronics industry has played a leading role in helping the country achieve remarkable economic growth and how big-name Korean electronics manufacturers and mobile service providers developed world’s firsts and competed with foreign rivals, and their brands have represented and boosted Korea’s status in the international community over the past 50 years.

If we take history as a mirror, we can look toward the future. In other words, we can envision the image of the future by using the past as a mirror. The next 11 stories in the series will take a close look at what Korean electronics developers and manufacturers and information and communications technology service providers have done over the past five decades and what will await them over the next 50 years.

Full Series Schedule
For those interested in past or future issues of this series, here isthe full schedule of the series:

July 2009: an overview
August 2009: The electronics industry is born
September 2009: Electronics industry gains momentum
October 2009: Color TV production opens a new vista
November 2009: Radios, cassettesand electronic watches change lifestyle
December 2009: The personal computer arrives
January 2010: TDX1 introduced into the local network
February 2010: TFT LCD allows determination of film thickness
March 2010: CDMA comes into commercial use
April 2010: U-technologies (part 1)
June 2010: U-technologies (part 2)
July/August 2010 : WiMAX opens

September 2010 : Era of IPTV