Chin Dae Je is a rarity in the Korean government. In a cabinet dominated by career bureaucrats, Chin's first political post came in February, 2003, when he was named Minister of Information & Communication after decades in business, including 18 years as a senior exec at Samsung Electronics Co. and two years as a researcher for IBM (IBM). After his appointment, Chin set out to make MIC run more like a business, outlining specific goals for employees and creating a new Web site to track the progress of new policies. Last year, the Prime Minister's office named his ministry the most innovative government agency, and these days folks in the ministry call him "MIC Inc. CEO."
Now Chin's main focus is bolstering Korea's already leading role as an innovator in information technology and telecom. In the past decade, the country has invested billions in research and infrastructure to become a world leader in broadband and cellular. But as other nations start to catch up, Chin aims to develop new areas where Korea can find an edge. So he has launched a program dubbed "IT 839." That's shorthand for eight services, three infrastructure projects, and nine products. "By identifying key technologies and handing out licenses early, the government wants to help create services and build up infrastructure that, in turn, will boost related products," says Chin, 53. If the plan pans out, the output of the IT sector could jump to $332 billion in 2007 from an estimated $210 billion last year, Chin says.
One of the eight services, called digital multimedia broadcasting, or DMB, is already up and running. It lets broadcasters beam programs to cell phones and other handhelds. This gives Korean handset manufacturers an advantage as they make and test mobile video receivers. So far, only Korean companies make devices that work on the standard, putting them at the forefront of a market that one state think tank predicts will become a $35 billion annual business by 2010. Another technology, WiBro -- for wireless broadband -- is slated to go commercial next year. It will give people high-speed Internet access while riding in vehicles traveling as fast as 60 km an hour. Other services include home networking, digital TV, Internet telephony, and a technology that allows merchants to track goods using tiny radio chips.
Chin has a personal stake in the initiative's success. He left Samsung to take his government job before he was eligible to cash in $6 million worth of stock options. "Although my family was poor," he says with a grin, "I was able to study thanks to state support -- from the sixth grade through my PhD," which he earned at Stanford University in the U.S. in 1983. "I felt like I had to return the favor when the President asked me to serve in the government," he adds. Now he's in a hurry to make sure that trade-off was worth it, if not for him personally then at least for Korea's position at the vanguard of the information-technology revolution.
By Moon Ihlwan