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“Pure Korean… Technology” on Wikipedia

I took a look around Wikipedia to see whether I could find a date for the introduction of the first train in Korea — and it turns out that this article on railway service in Korea furnishes a date that unfortunately does not work for the story I’m drafting now. I need to get some chatracters from Sosa to Kyeongbuk palace as quickly as possible, and unfortunately the Incheon-Seoul line wasn’t introduced until 1899. The story’s set during a sudden surge of effort by Japanese cartographers trying to map out Korea around 1894 or 1895.

In any case, that’s not what I wanted to post about. What caught my attention was when I skimmed the rest of the page, and ran across a very funny bit of text in the middle. It was in the section of the entry titled “High-speed service”:

A high-speed railway known as Korea Train Express (KTX) is currently in service between Seoul and Busan or Mokpo. The railway uses French TGV technology. Service started in April 2004—with some sections operating along preexisting track—while service on the railway’s fully separated tracks is planned to begin in 2010. Trains can reach a maximum speed of 300 km/h on dedicated high-speed track.

So far, less tampered-with than I expected.  The mention of the railway using French TGV technology was something I expected to have been blotted out by waves and waves (or one might say, mobs and mobs) of “netizens” out to safeguard the country’s international reputation. But, oh, wait, there’s always the next paragraph:

In 2005, the pure Korean high-speed railway technology has arrived. South Korean KTX engineers established HSR-350x independently. Korea became one of the top four High-speed train producing nations in the world. In 2007-2008, HSR-350x will be on service in Honam Line.

The grammar in the first sentence above is a dead giveaway:

In 2005, the pure Korean high-speed railway technology has arrived.

It makes me want to reach for my red pen and circle the whole sentence and write “verb tense?” Perhaps it was written in 2005. I don’t know. But I have to wonder what the difference between TGV train technology and this HSR-350x might be.

Luckily, someone has provided a wikipedia article for that, too, here. The most important bit of the explanation is this:

Although globally dominant along with the Japanese Shinkansen technology, Alstom’s TGV system does not incorporate some recent Korean technological innovations, such as an aluminum body, digital traffic control and a pressure compensation system. Due to the complaints about fixed-direction seats, the HSR-350x’s seats are rotatable. HSR-350x is nearing the end of its development and is expected to be available by the end of 2007.

(emphasis mine)

The two curious things about this are:

  1. The failure of the TGV system to use “Korean innovations” like “an aluminum body, digital traffic control [?], and a pressure compensation system” suggests that the main differences between the TGV system and the Korean HSR-350x in fact essentially consist of a few modifications and added features in the latter — as if souping up a Firebird counted as a wholly independent technological development of the automobile, or something. At any rate, the article certainly doesn’t suggest that this was a fully “independent”development, let alone a “pure Korean” technology. The article at least suggests that the TGV was used as the basis for designing the HSR-350x. Is that true?

    (I may be misunderstanding the article, of course. Then again, what is a “pure Korean” technology? What is “pure Korean”? I mean, kimchi wasn’t spicy until the hot pepper arrived here from the Americas, via Japan, courtesy of Portuguese traders, right? So is kimchi “pure Korean,” too?)

  2. The first article claims that “in 2005, the pure Korean high-speed railway technology has (sic!) arrived,” yet the second article says it is still under development and will “is expected to be available by the end of 2007.” And come to think of it, the first one claims it will be available in 2007 or 2008. Huh? So what does the “arrival” of this technology signify? An announcement in the press about the slated development? A TV news report on the subject? How has the technology arrived when it’s not yet available?

Perhaps, Dear Reader, you are as puzzled as I am.

Actually, the ambition to develop high-speed trains independently itself kind of baffles me. I can understand wanting to make significant contributions to an existent technology, adding innovations to a technology that already works well, or creating a totally new technology that works on new, previously unexploited design principles. I can understand the allure of the chance to improve on a design, though I wouldn’t exactly call it “independent development” of a technology.

And anyway, I’m completely baffled as to why anyone would want to reinvent the wheel. The trains we have now in Korea are high-speed trains; they’re excellent. If only there were enough of them, and enough track, for them to replace all the regular trains. I know, they’re based on a foreign technology, a French technology, but they’re here, and they’re fine. I’m sure lots of countries are using the French technology, so what’s the big deal? Why does national pride have to get tied in with it? I’m especially baffled when the technology is already in place here, and working just fine.

(The only thing I can imagine is that maybe the technology is being leased, in other words, rented. But even then, would a few innovations count as “independent development”? I’m guessing Korean patent law would say yes, since it’s a Korean inventor, but in terms of international law, I’m not so sure.)

Anyway, if you’re out to innovate, wouldn’t it be much better to spend the time, money, and energy developing — independently or otherwise — a new technology that actually hasn’t yet been invented, built, and implemented two, three, or even more times previously? Wouldn’t that be something to be truly proud of? There’d be no need for weirdly Victorian-sounding racio-technological rhetoric into Wikipedia, and the influx of cash into the country might even do some good outside of whatever corporation did the inventing, especially if it invested the money into supporting similar R&D projects elsewhere in Korea.

By the way, I’m not knocking Korea, or the innovations themselves, nor the KTX train service. I like the KTX. I much prefer it to any other form of long-distance transportation in Korea. It beats buses, normal trains, and riding in someone’s car. I love the KTX.

It’s just that the wikipedia entries about it baffle me somewhat, and I have to ask whether it’s some kind of befuddled nationalism-motivated posting that led to all the murkiness.

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