How Samsung Failed To Sell Me A Phone
@ 27 August 2006     
Thor's Korea Diary

IM-S110 phone

(Promotional cheesecake for Pantech's IM-S110 cellphone)

So you know what every man wants, don't you? ... There, your brain is busy dredging up smart answers (stereotypes actually), according to your gender. Every starving freelance journalist knows s/he can get a sale with an article along these lines. The funny thing is, with a divorce rate around 50% maybe the smart answers aren't so smart after all. In the end, marriage remains a gamble.

What does this have to do with mobile phones? Everything apparently. Take a peek at the advertisements and promotions for these things. The engineers might be making clever gadgets but the marketing departments are selling sex. That is all they are selling, as I've learned the hard way. Sex is very nice, but I don't want to do it 24/7. Actually I use the phone for other stuff. Maybe I'm strange, or maybe there is just a shortage of good salespeople. I tried and failed to buy a mobile phone in South Korea. That, after all, is pretty close to failing to have sex in a brothel.

Selling must be very nearly the oldest profession. It lends itself to fraud and deception, and therefore has a bad reputation. The prostitution of salesmanship is the easiest route for the lazy and unskilled, and therefore proliferates; (this is also true of my own profession, teaching). Raised to the institutional level, it pollutes the community. Mass marketing, like mass education, is apt to become poisonous.

There is another and far better way to sell. Some of the best teachers of this skill are to be found in souks and bazaars, in dusty markets stretching from Casablanca to Mombay - the very arc of geography so paradoxically despised by the high priests of corporate capitalism in Washington. Suppose that one hot afternoon you happen upon the rug shop of Mr Khan in a shady corner of some nameless south Asian market. Mr Khan does not have an exciting life, but he has been in this business all his life, like his father and grandfather. He knows his product. He doesn't know you yet, so you are his interest. You can brighten up his life, and give him something to talk about with his friends in the local coffee shop. He invites you in with genuine warmth, offers you a seat, and probably a cup of something. He asks how you came here and where you are going. What is your job? How many are in your family? Where do you live? What is your home like? ... Is Mr Khan just nosey? No, he is really interested, and he is also being a superb salesman. Gradually, you are developing some confidence in him as a human being. Gradually, he is accumulating the information that will enable him to select and offer the product that you need. In time, ever so gently, the conversation will come around to rugs. By now Mr Khan knows something about the rooms in your house. With infinite care he will paint you a picture of how this lovely little hand woven rug will look perfect between the coffee table and the TV in your living room..

Cut to a regional city in South Korea. The city is a compact assembly of concrete boxes, given life on the lower floors by small shops and restaurants that often stay open until 11pm. In many it is rare to see a customer, and the miracle is that they stay in business at all. Maybe 'business' is the wrong word. The entry level in capital and skills is low, the small inventories are repetitive, and if you happen to ask, the sales assistant rarely offers to get in what you need. For serious shopping you head to one of the two chaebol (conglomerate) superstores in town : Lotte Mart or E-Mart. A wider choice there at top prices, but if they don't happen to have what you want, well bad luck.

Commerce, like urban living itself, has a short history in Korea. The particularly extremist form of neo-Confucianism that permeated the culture for 500 years in the Choseun dynasty despised commercial activity, and many laws were passed to forbid it. For the most part traders were restricted to controlled bands of travelling hawkers who sometimes doubled as hired thugs to do dirty work for the ruling powers. When that dynasty collapsed unmourned, another half century of Japanese colonial exploitation did little to encourage local commercial initiative. It has only been since the 1960s in South Korea that the general population has urbanized, and a significant class of small shopkeepers and merchants has begun to emerge. The buzz is much brighter than it used to be, even since I came here six years ago, but that 'innate' skill of selling so common amongst trading peoples ( really a form of child and family education passed from generation to generation) is very rare in South Korea. There is corporate marketing, learned from text books by Koreans with American MBAs. Their territory is the TV ad' and poster. Real selling is another matter: they are clueless. You see what's in the shop and take-it-or-leave-it.

Scattered like confetti between the minor retail businesses in South Korean towns are mobile phone shops. In fact outdoor stalls selling mobile phones are more common than fast food stalls near apartment blocks, intersections, university campuses, or anywhere that a pedestrian might pause. I don't know what commission they are working on, but it is pretty clear that if you didn't do too well at school or are otherwise down on you luck, selling phones looks a whole lot more glamorous that running a tteokbokgi stand or making up beds in a yogwan. One small problem is that mobiles (handiphones in Konglish) are getting more diverse and multi-functional by the day. That is, they are Technical with a capital T. Fortunately perhaps, the majority of buyers neither understand nor use most of the options which for them are equivalent to the chrome fins and whitewall tyres of a 1950s American limousine. The sellers certainly could not explain the technology.

This is about where I spoiled the party. I have to carry a handiphone around in South Korea. It is hard to keep up any social connections without being mobile-available, or do anything much involving people. On the other hand, I rarely make calls. That means I'm carrying around a dead weight most of the time. For me anyway, for one of these things to justify its nuisance value it needs to offer some other song and dance act. With this in mind, I made up a list of what I needed and had it translated into Korean. Nobody here was going to sit me down in a souk with a cup of cardamon coffee and gently learn how to offer the best phone for my requirements. OK, so I'd make it easy. Here is the list (or the Korean version click here):


Mobile Phone

I don’t make many phone calls. Therefore I want other features to make the phone useful.


Useful features ( * = required)

1. * English menu option

2. * English-Korean / Korean-English dictionary

3. * PC USB connection

4. * mini SD card slot (more memory)

5. * Large screen

6. * Record voice notes


7. Light weight

8. Record incoming calls

9. Good battery life

10. Caller ID (i.e. number of the person calling)

11. School timetable / To Do

12. Memo pad

13. View files : jpg, txt, doc, pdf, etc.

14. IRD connection (infra red)

15. Bluetooth connection

16. Touch screen

17. Windows Mobile or Palm O/S or Symbian O/S or Linux (i.e. Smartphone)

18. Java

19. Pict-bridge printing


20. Trade-in old phone discount

21. Keep existing phone number


With my Korean version of this list, I began to do the rounds of phone shops in Chungju. The first easy option seemed like Lotte Mart or E-Mart. Indeed, it was a lucky moment in Lotte market. The selection was small, but the girl was an English major from Chungbuk University, filling in with a holiday job. As it turned out, she was the highlight of the expedition. She offered me one little phone, a PT-L2200 that had a nice design feel and speed wheel menu selection. It didn't take an SD card though, and (a killer for me) the dictionary was only for Korean Chinese characters (hanja) which younger Koreans tend not to know. Her next suggestion was an LG-LV2300 which had a bilingual dictionary, but on later checking, very limited options. Well, what about E-Mart? They had a much bigger selection of phones. I showed the sales girl my list. 'All' she said expansively, meaning all the phones had all the features. That was nonsense, and she made no move to show me any of them. "Sajon issoyo?" I asked pointing at one or two randomly. She stared back stonily, hoping I would go away. After five minutes of trying and being stonewalled I lost patience and did go away. Why do people like this have jobs?

The main streets of the old town in Chungju are thick with phone shops, most set up with that polished glass and air-conditioned feeling you associate the optometrists. Surely they would know their trade. The reaction was uniform. Mild panic as a foreigner walked in. They would survey my list of Korean specifications quietly for two minutes, then throw up their hands and proclaim "obseyo" - "we don't have it". What they lacked was not the phones, but any idea of what they could actually do. They were sitting there all day in mostly empty shops without even to getting to know their product. Nor did a single one of these sales failures actually picked up a phone to check if it could do what I wanted.

Well, if anyone in Chungju could understand the phones out there, surely it would be the Samsung Service Centre. After some hunting, I found the place, and sure enough they had a selection of handiphones on display. The sales person displayed familiar signs of unease as I approached. I showed him the specification list and asked what he had to match. His eyes scanned the requirements dubiously, then he uttered the ubiquitous "obseyo". "Igot otteokeyo?" I tried, pointing at a promising looking device. "Obseyo", he repeated with determination, not relaxing until I shrugged and began to walk away. After all, this was regional Korea, designated by the Koreans themselves as drop-out territory. If you want to "do" anything in this country, you go to Seoul.

One modern solution to the ignorance of sales staff is rather obvious. Airline companies and car component manufacturers faced it long ago. When you have thousands of items to organize you use a database. In this case it would be rather simple to set up a list of all the possible features attaching to mobile phones. You could have, for example, screen check boxes. Clicking on any combination would bring up a list of the models with those features. For that matter, there is no reason such a database could not be available online for public use.... But this is logical. Maybe someone out there prefers a chaotic market ?

So there is was. Nobody in Chungju wanted to sell me a phone. What was to be done? Well, when the slaves run away, all you can do is go to the head cook and bottle washer, and here that meant corporate Korea.

Foreign phones have very little market penetration in Korea in 2006 (there are a few Motorolas). In the 1980s when South Korea decided to get into the mobile phone business, the big international conglomerates with the exception of Qualcomm tried everything to resist. They were especially reluctant to licence the GSM technology which most other countries use. The Korean chaebols as a result licenced CDMA technology from Qualcomm, hugely developed it and effectively drove foreign competition out of the market. One lousy spinoff is that if you buy a phone in South Korea it is useless anywhere else without some pretty fancy modding. Even that is not the end of the story though. Koreans are reluctant to buy most things foreign, whether it is rice or beef or cars or phones, though they are suckers for fake Swiss watches and fake French fashion items. The two biggest phone manufacturers are Samsung and Pantech (a corporate recreation from bits of Hyundai electronics in 2000), both undeniably Korean in origin, but their factories are increasingly in China or elsewhere. The phones themselves (like cars and computers) are often rebadged for well-known local brand names. In other words, for a nobody in the street like you or me, even finding the head cook and bottle washer is about as easy as finding a Jedi master.

I had a shot at e-mailing Samsung and Pantech for advice. Well nobody just e-mails a corporation these days. They have those damned online forms with little stars for the bits you have to fill in, with everything in hangeul script in this case. I thought I'd actually navigated one of these abominations until it came to putting in my e-mail address. My e-mail address? Well no; only the first bit of it was allowed. Then came a drop down menu box with a handful of Korean service providers. Foreigners not welcome. Sigh. I admit to a particular hatred of Korean e-mail companies since they regularly bounce e-mails from any non-Korean source. They must have destroyed countless budding personal and business contacts between Korean people and the wider world. My students all have Hanmail or Naver accounts, which causes endless exasperation. Nowadays I tell them to open a free account with an international provider if they want me to answer their e-mails..... Anyway, talking to a Korean corporation as a foreigner in Korea was obviously out of bounds. I pitched next for their international sites, with a request to send the message home. The response showed up an interesting difference in the corporate cultures of Pantech and Samsung.

From Pantech came a note written by one Ms Sunhee Kim, who introduced herself, apologized for the lack of an English internet site, then recommended one phone right off : the IM-S110. She systematically checked its features against my list, and the only thing seriously missing from my point of view was an inability to display computer sourced files like Word .doc and .pdf. Still, it's a nice phone, has won an international design award, and from later checking seemed to be one of Pantech's star turns of the moment. What I really wanted of course was a selection of suitable devices to choose from, but at least Pantech gave a sensible, direct response.

Not surprisingly, the glamour of IM-S110 didn't come cheap : about W550,000. Upmarket Korean phones seem to cost around three times their American equivalents, partly because the way east Asian psychology (centered on prestige and display) is structured. The main reason though is that a small group of American corporate oligarchs lock their customers into restrictive contracts, then screw them on call rates. Call charges are closely regulated in South Korea. A common Korean call plan is W12,000 a month, then W18 per ten seconds call rate, with incoming calls free.

The Samsung effort came a bit later, in an unmistakable style : the Western corporate form letter, no doubt composed by a committee to meet all possible situations. It was obviously sourced from America (where I'd been forced to inquire), and referred me to an internet link for American products in English, and of course Korean stuff in Korean. No guidance (there are hundreds of phone models). The bottom line had a series of boxes to tick if the reply had been useful. For the record, I'll quote its full stupidity :


Dear Thor,

Phone Purchase?

Thank you for your inquiry. It is difficult for us to recommend one phone over another as the choice of purchasing a phone is quite simply a rather personal decision. The features and requirements you may be seeking may be features and requirements that we may not think to mention but may be very important for your daily use. For this reason, the best advice we can offer is to research your choices.

We will provide a location (below) to view all of the features of the phones, their specifications, the ability to download and view the respective manuals as well as check to see what accessories are offered, dependent on your needs. After you have a picture of what you need, what is being offered in the different models and have narrowed down the choices, the next step would be to go to your local service provider's store. Look at the phone, handle them, and see if your choices and the actual phone will work for you. If so, another option, and this is at the sole discretion of the service provider and their store, see if they have a grace period in which you can try the phone out to see if it will meet your needs.

If you have done all these things and have more questions, please feel free to email us or for a more instant response, contact Samsung Customer Support by phone, toll free at 1-888-987-4357 for answer to any last minute questions prior to purchase.

To view information on the phone of interest or all models, you can go to, then under the drop down menu in the center of the page, select the model of interest listed on the menu and click GO, or select the link for the service provider to see what phones are manufactured for use with that specific provider. The next page will show the features of the phone, also a link for specifications.

On the left navigational menu, there are also links for SUPPORT and SHOP ACCESSORIES.

SUPPORT - the first drop down menu on that page allows you to select the model of interest and the manual for that model will open your browser using Adobe Acrobat Reader. You can click the diskette icon in the upper left corner and choose to save that manual to your hard drive for future reference.

SHOP ACCESSORIES - select the model and click GO to view the accessories available for the model of your interest.

We do thank you for your interest in Samsung products.

Technical Support
Samtech 204


The only thing they had checked in my letter was my given name. When I replied tartly that Samsung had just lost my business, another form letter came back signed by "the team" and regretting I had ticked the "not satisfied" box. The team, it was clear, had still not read either of my e-mails and had no idea I was writing from South Korea. No doubt the team had other things on its mind, like getting home to the Superbowl on TV. It smelled of the quintessential managerial workplace : vision statements, slogans and a total lack of commitment or imagination. A bit like a work unit in a communist state really. Some time ago I met an Australian lawyer who had done time in Samsung's Seoul office. Every morning, he recalled incredulously, the team would line up, punch the air, and shouted in unison "Innovate ! Innovate ! Innovate !"

Well, heck, come to think of it, why did I want another phone anyway? A few years ago, when the sheer nakedness of being handiphone-unarmed in South Korea became obvious, I went to E-Mart in Busan and bought the cheapest model on display. The idea of an English menu option didn't occur to me then since I'd never used the things. The E-Mart people, at my suggestion, rang an interpreter service to convey some basic information on functions. It was like talking to a parrot. The interpreter was one of those people with an infinite talent for gossip and a zero comprehension of technology. I learned which button to press to answer a call, and that was about it. I've figured out since how to find the list of text spams from mysterious ladies who ask to have an assignation at 3pm on a convenient afternoon, credit cards accepted. Maybe the interpreter gave them my number. Who knows?

It has been a long, hot summer. We are all melting away in the dripping humidity of a South Korea that seems to make an annual migration to the latitude of the central Congo. My humble "Cyon Musical", as it is called, also regretted this departure from northern climates and began to turn itself off regularly. Close inspection and a quick scrape with a kitchen knife on the battery contacts seemed to fix that for a while. Then one moist morning the little monochrome screen froze into rude patterns and signs from some elf language. Half a day later I coaxed it back into life, but the memory appeared to be gone. I'd lost my spam list from the ladies of the night forever, and whatever else passed for a menu. It really did seem time to start the hunt for another handiphone. Well that was a week ago. Yesterdat I bumped into the daughter of a local shopkeeper, a bright girl who says hello from time to time. She's waging a steady campaign on mum and dad to get a handiphone like every other kid she knows, and has therefore acquired more expertise than all the phone salesmen in Chungju. Sugi examined the Cyon Musical with a brisk professional eye. "What's the password?" she demanded. Password ?? "Mm", she said, click, click, click. "There are your menus". Like any competent 13 year old she knew that 000 will get you into a cell phone. So now we are back to square one.



Galbijim "Cellphones" - Galbijim is an information wiki for living in South Korea

Kanellos, Michael (2004 ) "Nation: Techno-revolution in the making - South Korea's digital dynasty", C-net News,

Samsung Global Download Page (manuals)

Sky website (retailer for Pantech) - a somewhat surreal homepage of a virtual city (all in hangeul)

The Travel Insider website, "International Cell Phone Service" - a very informative eight part series on the hows and whys of mobile phone services for travelers around the world. - one of the leading retail, auction and information sites for electronics in South Korea (all in hangeul)

Yang, Heedong et al (2003 ) "Diffusion of Broadband Mobile Services in Korea: The Role of Standards and Its Impact on Diffusion of Complex Technology System" - a technical but very informative paper on the development of mobile phone technology in South Korea

How Samsung Failed To Sell Me A Phone
   copyrighted © Thorold (Thor) May 2006
   all rights reserved,

thormay AT  

The Passionate Skeptic 
[and what this website stands for ..]

Doubt well, do what you can, then let it be. Presidents, priests, wage slaves, hustlers, men and women, kids, we all live by the grace of those we love to despise...

Other Stories from Korea

Photos around KoreaLinks to Korea-related Sites

Exchange Rates to Korean Won


Bansong nestles in steep valleys


tiny-tot video games

a blizzard of seagulls

food comes with many side dishes



©2005 Thor May