My previous visit to Korea had been a six-hour transit stay just before the Olympics and I had been used as training material for a half-dozen different security teams getting their procedures ready for the onslaught of tourists and athletes. My current visit was considerably less high-strung, although there was still an awfully large number of security personnel in evidence. It was a traffic violation control day and each intersection had one or two cars pulled over for traffic violations and the expressway had police vans every few hundred meters, waiting for potential perpetrators to pass.

Wednesday morning, I took a cab out to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) to meet Kilnam Chon, a professor in the computer science department. KAIST is the center of one of Korea’s R&D networks, the System Development Network (SDN) which, for some reason, is also known as Hana. SDN has hubs at the two major KAIST locations in Seoul and at the Daeduk Science Park.

Fifteen universities and research organizations connect to the two hubs at speeds ranging from 9.6 to 56 kbps. A 56 kbps line to the University of Hawaii links this TCP/IP network into the Internet. SDN supports OSI applications such as FTAM and X.400, but usage was declining rather than increasing. Five years ago, in the middle of a large OSI push, 20 percent of traffic was X.400, but the number faded to insignificance as users switched over to SMTP-based mail handlers.

There are two other TCP/IP networks in Korea. While SDN supports itself by fees from members, the other two are government supported. The Korea Research Environment Open Network (KREOnet) is sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Technology and was originally established to provide an access path to a Cray. KREOnet was linked to SDN in two locations, providing a fairly seamless Internet.

KREOnet also maintained a 56 kbps link to CERFnet in San Diego, but it appeared that most Intemet traffic moved across the PACCOM link to Hawaii. Though the Hawaii link was saturated at times, for some reason the CERFnet link had been relegated to a role as a backup.

The third network was the Korea Research Network (KREN), sponsored by the Ministry of Education. The network linked eleven BITNET sites in Seoul to Japan via a 9,600 bps line. KREN also linked nine universities together with 9,600 bps TCP/IP lines and provided a path into the rest of the Korean Internet.

After a morning briefing on the networks, Professor Chon invited me to choose between hamburgers and “lousy Korean food” in the KAIST dining room. Lousy was an overstatement, but it certainly would not be described as spectacular.

What made the lunch palatable was the conversation. Professor Chon was the chair of the JTCl Korean Committee, the key committee for OSI work, and was also active in the CCITT standards arena. He had heard that the Bruno project had been killed and grilled me for the reasons.

Professor Chon had been planning on replicating Bruno for Korea and we discussed whether Korea really needed the ITU’s permission. As an individual, one could argue that I had in fact needed their permission, assuming you take the copyright assertion at face value.

A country, on the other hand, was in a different situation. After all, the ITU had come into being when countries like Korea had signed the ITU treaty. A key aspect of international law is that any right not explicitly delegated is retained by sovereign states, and one had to wonder if the ITU could prohibit Korea from distributing standard documents to its citizens.

One could even read the ITU treaty as encouraging this behavior. The treaty required that all members take all possible steps to achieve the broadest dissemination of ITU recommendations. Though online distribution of standards was not specifically mentioned, it was certainly not explicitly prohibited.

I explained my concept of a “standards haven,” where a country would ensure that standards were available online to its citizens. Not for anonymous FTP, mind you, since that would muddy the issue of sovereignty. Once the standards were online in one country, though, it would be a simple matter of cutting tapes for other countries.

“Let’s do it!” Professor Chon said. I cautioned that there might be political fallout, with the ITU possibly objecting to the Foreign Ministry, a common bureaucratic home for the official delegate to the ITU. In Korea, though, the ITU representative happened to be in the Ministry of Telecommunications. To my delight, the Ministry had already gone on record as actively supporting online distribution of standards and had passed the requirement for such a fileserver down to Korea Telecom, the PTT.

Lunch started to taste better and I finished my kimchi. Korea was looking more and more like it might become the world’s first standards haven.

The conversation then shifted to other standards documents, particularly OSI. There were two types of OSI documents that interested Professor Chon: working group documents and the final products, the International Standards.

Working group documents constituted enormous piles of study papers, submissions, drafts, technical corrigenda, and other documents in such profusion that simply moving paper around to participants had become the key bottleneck in the standards process.

ISO had formed a working group on working group procedures, but the working group was still bogged down in formulating the procedures under which it would operate. The best that they had come up with had been to use floppy disks to exchange ASCII-based files.

The secretariat for JTCl was, unfortunately, ANSI. Any attempt to provide a file server for distribution of working documents would require the cooperation of the ANSI secretariat and it was highly unlikely that this notorious group of Luddites would want any part of it. ANSI had been the single most vocal critic of the Bruno experiment, sending their objections straight to Pekka Tarjanne.

Online distribution of working documents would certainly improve the ISO Process, but I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to improve it. It would be much more interesting to get the product from that process available to those mere mortals who didn’t have the time or money to fly to exotic locations and stay in expensive hotels. People in developing countries, students, and others without extensive resources should at least be able to read the international standards.

ISO standards, centrally produced and all in a common format, were a prime candidate for scanning and optical character recognition. A single format and high-quality documents means that the OCR software can quickly learn and can produce a fairly accurate rendition of the standards. Modern OCR software can go so far as to save markup information such as the font size or the location, making semi-automatic conversion into a language such as SGML very feasible.

The only hitch was that distribution rights went from ISO to the national standards bodies and ISO appeared to have inserted a minimum selling price for international standards. For draft international standards, though, there was no minimum selling price. In other words, a national standards body could give away a DIS but not an IS.

In most cases (but not all), the draft standard was virtually identical to the final product. The definition of a draft standard is that there are only minor technical corrections to be made. It would certainly be nice to distribute the final product (the idea of giving students an inferior product certainly grated), but this might be a loophole that would force some change.

The goal of setting up standards havens was not to get countries into the standards distribution business. Instead, I was much more interested in getting ISO and ITU to see the light and begin the process of distribution themselves. After all, it would make so much more sense to put a series of FTP (or FTAM) servers around the world and release all documents over the Internet.

Professor Chon set me up to visit Korea Telecom the next day to pitch my idea, and I went back to town to take care of unfinished business. First on the list was a new power cord. The lounge at Narita Airport had only 2-prong straight outlets and, desperate to get some work done, I had finally snapped the ground prong off the cord for my laptop.

Luckily, Korea used the same outlets as the U.S., including the same grounded outlets. Unluckily, however, getting the concierge at the hotel to send me in the right direction was a bit of a challenge. Arranging a visit to the North Korean border would have been a snap, but computer components drew a blank.

I made typing motions until the concierge shrugged her shoulders and wrote the name Se-Woon Sang Ga on a piece of paper. I handed the paper to the cabby who shot me a puzzled look, shrugged his shoulders, and took off. Ten minutes later, he pulled in front of a run-down 5 story concrete building.

Turned out this was where people rebuild old video games. Room after room was filled with old motherboards, technicians squinting at oscilloscopes and old men playing Go. The halls were crowded with rebuilt machines and school children came flooding in to play free games, testing the machines.

I wandered past a store that sold nothing but joy sticks, another that had ribbon cables, several video tube stores, and, inexplicably, a sculptor making plaster busts of the dearly departed. Finally, I found a shop with a few PCs running Tetris. I made jabbing motions at the wall, ran my hands in a snaking motion towards a PC, and reached for the power switch, making flicking motions.

One of the kids, realizing that I probably wouldn’t just disappear, got up from his game and I repeated my charade. He nodded and reached up to the top shelf and handed me a power cord. I forked over my 3,000 won (U.S. $4) and went happily back to the hotel.

The next day, I took a cab way out to the outskirts of Seoul to the research laboratories of Korea Telecom. The Umyon Dong building, I found out sitting in Future Hall, was the most intelligent building in Korea.

It certainly looked smart. Everything gleamed, the halls were empty, and there were lots of video screens all over. Ushered up to the second floor, I met Moon-Haeng Huh and Joo-Young Song, two senior officials of Korea Telecom. They showed me around the building, pointing out CATV servers, the FDDI backbone, and even fingerprint recognition equipment for entry to high security areas.

The place didn’t even have light switches or temperature controls in the rooms: you used the telephone to call the automated control server, keying in the temperature you wanted for a room.

After some ginseng tea, we discussed the idea of a standards server. The labs, with an IBM 3090, Pyramid superminis, VAXen, Sun servers, and lots of other equipment, certainly had the resources. They also had the mandate. We agreed that this looked like a likely project and I left agreeing to send in a formal proposal. I couldn’t wait to get home to get this started, but I had a few more stops to make first.