North Korea has The Bomb. South Korea’s gadgets are the bomb.
OK, that’s a trite way to look at tensions on a peninsula once again tugging the world into almost unimaginable catastrophe.
Yet the yawning cultural gap between Seoul and Pyongyang in some ways poses as treacherous a chasm as the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
On one side of the line, smartphones and all the connectivity they represent integrate into, and even consume, daily life. To the north, many people don’t realize such things are even possible.
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In between the two is a geographic line that is carpeted with a decidedly 20th century technology, the land mine. It’s the reason the United States has been reluctant to agree to international land mine ban treaties.
South of the 39th parallel, tech is king. It’s a monster driver in the South Korean economy. You’ve probably got Korean-made electronics with you right now.
If you’re not packing a Samsung or LG phone-branded gadget, there’s a good chance that the silicon chips inside your gizmos were made in South Korea.
“Most importantly to the tech industry, (South Korea) is a major supplier of the semiconductors and flash memory, and provides chips to Apple and many other big tech players,” declared a Fast Company story headlined “Tech Companies Should Be Very Concerned About North Korea’s Nukes (And You Should Be Too).”
If fighting breaks out between the North and South, a shock to tech world would be a trivial footnote.
Analysts say any conflict would take place with nuclear weapons on a hair trigger. Even a strictly conventional war would put Seoul, and the 25 million people who live there within easy artillery range from the DMZ 20 miles away, in unspeakable peril.
Whether the civilian population center would be destroyed, or merely devastated, is up for debate. No one doubts, however, that the loss of life would be enormous.
The New York Times on Monday offered a concise primer on why all the questions about how to handle a belligerent North Korea are so hard, how even the most limited military actions hold a strong potential to escalate into a war involving the United States, Japan, China and Russia.
That explainer also gives some insight into why North Korean boy king Kim Jong Un has inherited a country seemingly itching for war, with butter sacrificed for guns across decades, while South Korea became more Western and tech-centered.
“North Korea has proved itself capable of withstanding economic devastation,” the article declares, noting that the country’s collective psyche is driven by resentment of South Korea, its U.S. sponsors and any other forces that threaten the regime.
During the Obama years, the U.S. practiced “strategic patience” with Pyongyang. During these early months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the approach is still not clear.
But since the shooting of the Korean War ended in July 1953 (no end to the war was ever officially declared), the two countries have evolved in very different directions. The North veered toward isolation, abandoned when its chief sponsor, the Soviet Union, fell apart in the 1990s. It drifted into an uneasy alliance with the Chinese.
Even if war is avoided, an internal collapse of North Korea’s government would send floods of refugees into China and South Korea, likely crippling social structures and pulling their tech sectors into crisis.
In South Korea, the economy retooled much like Japan’s after World War II. Hyundai and Kia made cars that undercut Japanese Hondas, Nissans and Toyotas on price and increasingly challenged them on quality.
More distinctively, its computer electronics became a world standard.
And while the North Koreans became so poor that perhaps 10 percent of their population died in a 1990s famine, the South Koreans zipped forward in the Digital Age.
The country has the fastest average internet connection speeds in the world. Its companies have invested heavily in research and development while consumers have adopted readily to electronics and internet commerce.
It leads the world in the use of delivering government services electronically. South Korea is ranked atop the world for information and communications technologies use.
It has about 58 fixed telephone lines for every resident and 110 mobile phone subscriptions for every 100 residents (yes, more than one cellphone per person). More than three in four homes has a computer and nearly 99 percent of homes have internet access with average download speeds of about 26.3 megabits per second.
By comparison, the United States has about 31 mobile phone lines for every 100 residents and internet speeds averaging 16.3 megabits per second.
Similar numbers aren’t available for the reclusive North Korea. People there can land in prison camps for using cellphones to connect with relatives abroad.
“North Korea remains one of the most isolated countries in the world, with its government maintaining a monopoly over communications and controlling the flow of information in and out of the country,” reports Amnesty International. “The North Korean government has negated the right of its citizens to seek, receive and impart information freely regardless of frontier, a fundamental component of the right to freedom of expression.”
The country North Korea has a domestic-only internet system controlled by the government. Citizens cannot legally, nor for the most part, practically, reach the World Wide Web.