Korea Asks Gates: Whose Tongue Is It?

Microsoft's Bill Gates bid last month to buy Korea's leading word-processor firm.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In a nation of giant companies, Lee Chan Jin was an easy hero.

His small firm, Hangul & Computer Co., stood out as an example of dynamic high-tech firms South Korea wants to encourage. When its word-processing program for the Korean language hit the market in 1989, its stock soared. Admirers nicknamed Mr. Lee "the Bill Gates of Korea."

But success was ephemeral. Software pirates bled Hangul & Computer into debt. Like many Korean businesses these days, it sought foreign investors to bail it out.

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To the fiercely nationalistic Koreans, foreign investment is a necessary evil to overcome the economic crisis of the past year. But this takeover was different.

"Hangul" - the name of the word processing software as well as the Korean alphabet - is a cultural institution. When the real Bill Gates came to town earlier last month, offering to buy a stake in Lee's company, the public's irritation was palpable.

The $20 million offer was reportedly conditioned on Hangul & Computer giving up its popular word-processing program. Korean newspapers claimed Hangul had 80 percent of the market, but that now Microsoft Word's Korean version could eat the market unhindered.

Microsoft denies such conditions, saying Hangul & Computer gave up the program of its own accord. A deal won't be signed until mid-July.

In the meantime, an anti-Microsoft coalition has formed and thousands have signed petitions protesting the investment. Koreans see Mr. Lee "as a traitor," explains Alex Kim, an official at Korea's Fair Trade Commission (FTC). "At the same time, Microsoft's action is taken as an intrusion into the national psyche."

Government officials make off- the-cuff estimates that converting Hangul files to the Microsoft format would cost billions of dollars. The FTC is poised to investigate suspicions of predatory monopoly.

But Hangul won't die easily. It has more functions and is easier to use than Microsoft's MS Word.

"Technically speaking, Hangul is very, very good for the particular requirements of the Korean alphabet and writing system. MS simply doesn't meet the challenge," says Kim.

In terms of culture, Hangul includes several dead characters and alphabets, like Kugyol and Ido, used centuries ago. MS Word can't quote anything written before 1933.

"Even if most people are upset for xenophobic reasons, I'm upset because it's a cultural loss," says Peter Schroepfer, an American exchange student who recently earned his master's degree in Korean classical literature. "For a country that still has to pave a few roads, Korea has an incredible amount of historical material on CD-ROM."

And it's all written with Hangul.

Cultural aficionados doubt Microsoft has the love of the Korean language to make a nuanced program. "This latest development in the software business is nothing less than a major threat to Korea's 'linguistic sovereignty,' " writes Ross King, professor of Korean studies at the University of British Columbia, on an Internet posting. "Do Koreans really want to entrust their graphico-computational needs, covering nearly 2,000 years of attested texts in a wide variety of writing systems, to Bill Gates?" says Professor King.

One group is calling for Koreans with pirated copies of Hangul to pitch in $7 each to save the company. Others suggest the government buy Hangul programs en masse or, if the programs can't be saved, arrange to leak the software codes to engineers who can produce new versions.

Microsoft promises to be a good caretaker of the language, noting that it has more than 60 Koreans working in its research and development department.

It also says Hangul's market share is exaggerated. By Microsoft's count, Hangul has 41 percent to Microsoft's 47 percent. It's investing because Hangul has "a lot of potential and lots of good manpower," says Microsoft's Kwon Chan.

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