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Korea Blog: “Samsung Rising,” from Nation-Builder to (Would-Be) Apple-Killer

“Are you ever uncomfortable as a foreigner in Korea?” I’ve heard that question, and countless variations on that question, from Koreans and other foreigners alike. The answer is no, in that I don’t feel afflicted by any excessive hassle (at least of the non-administrative variety) as a result of my outsider status. The most frustrating complications of life in Korea come not from my being American, but my being a user of Apple devices. The iPhone, available here for more than a decade now, more or less works, but nothing else is designed for the user of Macintosh computers. That holds especially true for online banking and commerce, whose use of Microsoft’s obsolete Windows-only ActiveX software framework has been mandated by this ostensibly tech-savvy country’s law since the 1990s.

Sticking to Apple in Korea is like trying to stay vegetarian in Korea: sooner or later, your principles will be compromised. Some expatriates break down and buy a cheap Samsung laptop for use when Korean online services absolutely refuse to cooperate. At least they can rest assured that tech support, “after service” (Konglish for repairs), and compatible accessories are never far away in the “Republic of Samsung.” American journalist Geoffrey Cain refers to South Korea that way throughout his new book Samsung Rising: The Inside Story of the South Korean Giant That Set Out to Beat Apple and Conquer Tech. The name reflects not just the fact that Samsung is from Korea — which the company once took no great pains to point out to consumers who assumed it was Japanese — but that, more than any other entity, Samsung has made the country what it is.

On the first page Cain writes of having interviewed more than 400 individuals for the book, including “current and former Samsung employees, executives, politicians, businesspeople, board members, journalists, activists, and analysts.” Asked which they think is more powerful, Samsung or the government of South Korea, I wager that each and every one of them would name the former without hesitation. In one form or another, Samsung has outlasted quite a few ruling regimes. Its founder Lee Byung-chul first applied the brand name to a vegetable and dried fish shop he started in 1938, when the country was still a Japanese colony. Lee continued to expand his ventures when Americans displaced Japanese after World War II, since either power could be worked with; the North Koreans who invaded in 1950 proved to be tougher customers, preferring to loot rather than cooperate.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.