Navigating the Intertubes in Korea

Korea has the fastest internet speeds in the developed world. But that blazing service comes with unexpected caveats. Here are a few computer snafus and other technological oddities we've encountered. Please note that Erin and I are not tech savvy people. I'm lucky if I can get my email to work, so many of these were just thoroughly bedeviling.

1) We can't use Amazon

This seems to be a problem of shipping, mostly. Amazon sends everything through a local Korean carrier, and they are most charitably described as "sketchy." Months long wait times? Check. Bizarre text messages on your phone at all hours of the night? Check. Increasingly hostile demands for sensitive personal information - the kind an identity thief would salivate over? Check and mate.

We've never had any trouble getting packages sent from the US using the plain old post office. But anything direct from Amazon is just a nightmare.

So does this mean you can't shop online in Korea? Ha, ha! No! You just have to use gmarket. It's Amazon for this part of the world. Delivery is fast, cheaper than anything you'll find in the west, and very professional. And you can get anything if you look hard enough.


2) Don't bring a Mac

Koreans do almost all banking online, including paying rent and basic utilities. In most cases, it is physically impossible to handle bills any other way.

In order to maintain security on all these transactions, South Korean websites often require a special browser plug-in. It's a pretty basic program installed on your hard drive, that signals to the site that your computer is authorized to make transactions. This sounds fine in theory, but in practice, these are archaic bits of code last updated during the 80's (which makes them about as secure as a bank vault sealed with tissue paper), and they all, all, ALL require Internet Explorer.

If you have a PC? No worries! (aside from the security issues, of course) It's a bit of a pain, but you can do anything you need after a simple download and a little setup. If you have a Mac? Then you'd better partition your drive, buy a copy of Windows, and dedicate a chunk of your memory to Internet Explorer, because it's the only way you're doing any banking here.


3) Google and South Korea don't seem to mix well

Google is so ubiquitous in the west that its name has become synonymous with 'internet search.' But for some inexplicable reason, it's services are less enthralling in South Korea. This is one of the few countries where Google is not the number one search engine (it's naver), and most Google products just don't seem to work all that well here.

In the US, Google Maps is just how I find... everything, really. But this isn't the case in South Korea. Local laws restrict how online mapping data can be used. The Verge had a little article about it a couple years back. Basically, foreign companies are barred from providing directions via online services. Ostensibly, this is so mapping information doesn't fall into the hands of North Koreans in the event of an invasion. In practice however, local Korean companies like Naver and Daum are able to provide internet mapping services without restriction, even to users outside South Korea's borders. Which kind of makes it look like the government just threw up a bunch of roadblocks to slow down foreign competitors

Additionally, YouTube just doesn't seem to work well here. I can download almost anything at ridiculously fast speeds, but when I try to watch a video on Google's premier streaming service, I can barely get even the worst quality loaded... forget watching in HD.


4) Over regulation

Want to play online video games like World of Warcraft? Korea has a couple questions for you. First, is it a school night? Yes? Hmm... well, are you an adult or a child? A child? Sorry. No. You aren't allowed. Oh, you're an adult? Oh, well then, why didn't you say? Please enter your Korean ID number so we can verify your age.

You think I'm kidding, but I'm not. Children are legally barred from playing video games online after a certain time of night. The New York Times had a whole article on it, and on some of Google's troubles with South Korean regulations.


Ultimately, Eat Your Kimchi said it best. Korea's is a broken internet paradise. You will never have faster service anywhere in the world, but what you can do with it is sometimes surprisingly limited.