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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sampoong Sutbul Galbi (Seoul)

So long for new year resolutions: I'm starting 2012 with the carbon footprint of a Hummer.

Well. There are lighter ways to cure holiday excesses than marinated pork ribs on charcoal, but to add insult to injury the meat has been shipped, according to the menu's ballpark estimates, all the way from the States or Spain. I tried to check it out and to chat in Castilian with the animal, but the pulp only hissed back from the grill. Taste-wise, 'twas Korean galbi at its best.

Bonuses include bits of charcoaled ddeok, a rice or noodle dish (I tried both varieties of naengmyeon: a mean "bibim" and a pleasant "mul"), and a disarmingly kind staff.

Sampoong Sutbul Galbi can easily be reached from Yeongdeungpo-gu Office Station (Lines 2-5, exit 4, go straigth to the Gu Office, that's the last building to the left), but I took a cab. End of the statement.

Sampoong Sutbul Galbi (Restaurant Sampoong) / 삼풍 숮불갈비

91-1 Dangsan-3-ga (Moonhwa Building 1F), Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel +82.2.2634.3035
(discover other restaurants)

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year

Tricky year ahead: as challenges are getting tougher at all levels (social, economical, economical, environmental...), many countries will face elections (the US, China, Korea, France, pre/post-revolution Arab countries...), or digest recent regime changes (at this stage, I wouldn't count KIM Jong-un replacing KIM Jong-il on the mound as a regime change: Junior pledged to play by the 'Army First' rules, and has been trained for strikes and curveballs).

For this helluva ride, we'll try to stay on the back of the Black Dragon, but we've got a few week to get ready for that since, according to the lunar calendar, the new year begins only on Monday, 23 January 2012.

I wish you love, peace, a good health, and lots of laughs.

A very happy new year to you / Tous mes voeux pour 2011

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Six lanes of traffic

If you want to open a shop in Seoul, the three most expensive places per square meter are Myeongdong, Hongdae, and Daehangno. And if you consider neighborhoods with the highest total value for commercial space, you get the same trio, followed by Gangnam Station (Cheongdam-dong / Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu), Sillim-dong (Gwanak-gu), and Geondae (Konkuk University, Gwangjin-gu).

Perennial leader Myeong-dong became a shopping mecca under the Japanese occupation, leveraging massive foot traffic between old and new commercial or financial centers (Namdaemun, Chungmuro, Uljiro...), at the feet of the cathedral. That's where the first neon signs were displayed in Korea, where the National Theater was inaugurated in the mid thirties (it reopened a couple of years ago as Myeongdong Theater), and where students have met for generations, now joined by tourists from all horizons.

Gangnam Station is of course a much more recent hotspot. But not the 'hot' kind of hotspot, even if it is close to key neighborhoods. To start with, the name is some kind of a drag: many images come to you when you hear Apgujeong-dong, Cheongdam-dong, Nonhyeon-dong, or Sinsa-dong,but when you hear Gangnam Station, you don't even see an old-style train stationon - just a subway entrance by a highway intersection. This busy business hub has yet to develop its own soul, an identity beyond a crossroads that happen to be where the Hannam Bridge axis meets Line 2. Yes, that's also where buildings grew taller before the rest of Teheran-ro (except for the COEX), and where the first major netcos gave birth to Teheran Valley. But the first real landmark (Kukkiwon doesn't count) is very recent... and I don't know if the new Samsung headquarters can give more purpose to the area: architecturally, the place could have used more "roundness" and openness. In a nutshell: Gangnam Yeok? a good place for business.

All other members of this Top 6 are university areas, with Hongdae leading the pack, stronger than ever. The brand has gained international recognition, but commercial space is becoming prohibitive for smaller fishes, and they're sometimes driven away to nearby dongs by big franchises. Those guys tend to make all popular areas look the same, and that's not what you want for a trendsetting hotspot boasting the ultimate indie spirit. But as long as Hongik University stays here, the fabled Hongdae spirit shall survive. And traffic is not bound to slow down: Hongdae Ipgu is now connected to both airports via the AREX, new infrastructures will bring Sinchon even closer, and the whole area will get a boost from the downtown-Yongsan-Yeouido-DMC business ring.

Daehangno survived even after Seoul National University moved to the other side of the Han river. Better: the move triggered a revolution that turned the historic birthplace of Korean university* into a cultural hotspot, aspiring venues from yet another university neighborhood, Sinchon. From Sinchon to Daehangno to Hongdae...

... Next stop: Geondae? Probably not. The place probably went up in the rankings following the construction of the Star City complex, just south of the university (not in Mojin-dong but in Jayang-dong). A major real estate operation... and the perfect occasion to fill a void for shoppers in Eastern Seoul.

I'd like to finish with Sillim-dong. Neither for its prestige (as the gateway to Seoul National University, with a strong major in law studies), nor for its less glamour, night birds side of the coin (Nokdu-geori): I have a special affection for the place because of its natural landscape, or rather what's left of it. Take out all those ugly constructions and just keep Dorimcheon serpenting peacefully between the small hills at the foot of Gwanaksan, and potentially you've got one of the city's most charming sceneries. Of course, it's probably too late to save this gem: the stream is already covered with concrete, and the future Shillim New Town already destroyed Wonsi-gil... OK time for me to get off my high horse.

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* That was long before SNU - a relative newcomer -, Sungkyunkwan a.k.a. Taehak (a charming place to visit).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

KIM Jong-il passes. To KIM Jong-un. Presumably.

So as expected, KIM Jong-il died. A bit early to secure the transition with KIM Jong-un, who might be tempted to show his skills to those who doubt he's got whatever that is North Korean leaders are supposed to have.

Physically, Junior already used plastic surgery to improve his Kimilsungist looks, let's hope he won't try to sport his dad's weirdo hairdo now.

Character-wise, Jong-un is rumored to be more ill-tempered than his brothers Jong-nam and Jong-chol, respectively a Disneyland and an Eric Clapton fan. But compared to the Late Dear Leader, he's more permeated with such capitalist perversions as burgers. And it starts showing, particularly in a country where the population is maintained in a constant state of starvation.

As far as leadership is concerned, Jong-un didn't quite pass the cut last year: the young lad has been credited with the latest attack on South Korean soil but doesn't seem much of an expert, judging by the way he uses binoculars...

So we'll follow KIM Jong-il's funerals (after four weddings, Hugh can grant him that*). And eminent Pyeongyangologists will watch closely: who will keep a seat when the music stops? Isn't CHANG Sung-taek a trifle too old for musical chairs? Will Beijing-friendly people get promoted in the army**?

In South Korea, a North Korean Spring or Winter would have consequences for the 2012 elections: more tensions could become a problem for AHN Cheol-soo (commander in chief beyond cyberwars?), and boost conservatives, but not necessarily PARK Geun-hye (would Koreans vote for a woman in times of crisis, and one used to operating only behind the scenes at that?).

By the way. This week-end, LEE Myung-bak visited Japan, and devoted the bulk of his talks with Yoshihiko Noda to the issue of Japanese military sexual slavery, following Wednesday's successful demonstration (see "
One Thousand Wednesdays"). But if he's consistent, the President must also reactivate the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: every country must face its own past, particularly when it expects the same from its neighbors.

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* the movie was released in 1994, the year KIM The First died

**... and the invisible 'hanschluss' continue? see "
Re-engaging North Korea - A Four Party Talk", and previous posts about NK

Friday, December 16, 2011

TempleStay? Check

For the best ad of the year, HomePlus / Cheil Worldwide sure made a splash with their QR code based 'virtual store' campaign in Seoul subway*, but I'll vote for this one instead:

Advertising is always somehow lying or selling what you don't have but here, the announcer is telling the truth and insisting on what it doesn't offer. TempleStay invites you to check in if you're not interested in the usual perks (bed, tv, phone, shopping, oversleep, neon sign, coffee, meat), but in a journey in search of yourself. The best loyalty program around.

If you're not aware of this successful program, Korean temples have always been welcoming but now, even families give it a try. The concept gained international momentum around the 2002 World Cup, to the point Jogye Order moved its TempleStay Info Center to brand new headquarters, right across Jogyesa (in 71 Gyeonji-dong, Jongno-gu, +82.2.2031.2000 - check their website eng/, and the video below).

Note that KNTO has been promoting "Hanok Stay" along a similarly labelled path. Another way of experiencing a more traditional side of Korea.

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* remember "HomePlus virtual stores in Seoul subway : from your smartphone to Cannes festival screens"? The concept has been extended IRL ("HomePlus subway virtual store gets "real" (from click and mortar to billboard and click)"). That video was seen over 25,000 times, see if you can do better with this one from Arirang TV (about Songgwangsa in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do) -and don't worry, the film starts after a few seconds of test pattern:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

One Thousand Wednesdays

The young girl is sitting on a chair, a bird on her left shoulder. Her sad eyes seek an answer from the building across the street, to no avail. This time again, the Japanese Embassy remains silent. Or rather, it keeps protesting against the statue of the girl recently erected across the street as a reminder: the Korean victims of sexual slavery are still expecting justice and official apologies from the Japanese Government.

Today, the young girl was surrounded by a couple of old friends: a few surviving 'comfort women' who are now in their 80s or 90s. They live in the House of Sharing, a residence and museum in Gyeonggi-do, and come every Wednesday to protest. Not against the statue, but with it, and for justice.

Today, these halmoni were surrounded by hundreds of friends: longtime activists and supporters of the cause, or simple citizens of the World from all ages, all origins, all beliefs.

Today, December 14, 2011, marked the 1,000th Wednesday of protest since January 8, 1992, and masses met in front of the Embassy in Junghak-dong. Wiping away their tears and facing again the camera: they've overcome shame for 20 years, and since then more than ever, the shame is on Japanese leaders.

This is not about nationalism, and this is certainly not about Korea vs Japan, but about Japan vs Justice, and about Japan vs its own future. Crimes were committed and victims simply expect justice*. Japan must face history in order to face the future, and its leaders cannot hide the truth to Japanese citizens any longer.

I've said the same thing
about other issues: this is also about saving Japan. And if I joined the protesters, it's also because I love Japan and because I can't accept to see a minority of die hard ultra-conservatives setting a corrupt agenda and betraying the Japanese people.

And to Korean ultra-nationalists who try to hijack this case for their own corrupt agenda, I say: clean your own mess first, and restore the Truth and Reconciliation Commission***.

Help the victims and support the cause:

House of Sharing / Nanum : /
Join the Facebook group
NB (reminder): until Friday, the House of Sharing's International Outreach Team is organizing near Hongdae a multi-media art exhibition dealing with issues of sexual slavery, human trafficking, and violence and oppression against women, and including film projections, works from halmonies...*

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* Justice means:
1. That the Japanese government admits the compulsory drafting of Korean women as Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.
2. That an official apology will be made for this.
3. That all the atrocities will be fully disclosed.
4. That a Memorial will be built for the victims.
5. That the survivors or their bereaved families will be compensated
6. That the facts and truth about Military Sexual Slavery by Japan will be taught in Japanese history classes so that such inhumanities are not repeated.
7. Punish the war criminals.

** until Friday at Cafe Anthracite (Hapjeong-dong 357-6, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea, near Sangsu station)

*** see previous episodes, including "TRCK : families of victims demand essential follow-up", "TRCK lost in translation or lost in transition ?", "Achievements and Tasks of TRCK's Activities", "Truth and Reconciliation : which model for Korea ?"

Friday, December 9, 2011

Seoul Town Hall Meeting 2011

Seoul's 13th town hall meeting, probably the last to be held at Seosomun Annex before the inauguration of the new City Hall (on the other side of the avenue formerly known as Taepyeongno), was a great success.

Two month into his new job, Mayor Park Won-soon attended the whole meeting and confirmed his reputation by expressing empathy for everyone. He never intervened in English, but mentioned his experience abroad and (unlike yours truly) didn't need to use the translation device.

The audience (as usual international residents from all origins) was all ears, comfortably sitting at a table and enjoying a plate of fresh fruits - an echo to the hit drama of the year about free school lunches?

This meeting focused on education issues and particularly for multicultural households, in which kids often experience discrimination and bullying at school, and parents frustration - if not humiliation as sometimes highly educated people - on a daily basis.

I've often criticized the self-destructive trends in Korea's educational system, a system that evolved from equal-access and merit-based selection to today's abomination. If education drove Korea to success, it is now dragging it downwards and must be reformed to ensure the country's competitivity in a world where diversity and creativity must be encouraged, not anihiliated.

If this corrupt system is driving away Koreans from parenthood and even from the country, no wonder it's becoming a deterrent for foreigners. For every parent, there's a clock ticking and the closer their kids get to The Big Exam, the more they wish there were alternatives. We all know people who are considering moving abroad even if they would prefer to stay in Korea only because of this nonsense. What a waste: as elementary schools and universities are becoming more and more foreigner-friendly, everything seems to be made to ruin the rest.

Even more than new foreign schools, Korea needs to make sure its own people does not feel estranged from its own schools. Reforming the system will not only facilitate the integration of foreign and multicultural individuals, but the integration of all citizens into a sounder society.

Learning should always be stimulating and motivating, and I was pleased to hear that Seoul Metropolitan Government officials were about to promote extracurricular activities and sports at school.

Likewise, good news for pedestrians and bicycle riders: the city intends to continue its efforts in their favor, and will follow the same pattern as many Western countries, where pedestrians come first, then cyclists, then motor vehicles (as we speak, bicycles are treated as cars). Police authorities pledged to enforce more drastically the ban of motorcycles on sidewalks.

Seoul keeps improving because it's constantly taking into account all comments, complaints, or suggestions from its citizens, looking for answers and solutions, following up every issue.
Seoul Global Center changed everything for foreign communities, reaching far beyond the usual affluent expats to the populations that need the most help. The staff and volunteers are doing a tremendous job, and thousands of members of the international community keep contributing every year with precious insights and feed back, but Seoul can thank the man who's been leading this change and enabling this cultural shift: Alan Timblick, the Head of SGC.

As the capital city, Seoul can show the way in the much needed overhaul of education, and it can leverage what has now become a model institution across the region. You too can have your say and
contact the Seoul Global Center.

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2011 Town Hall Meeting Program:
. Opening (Hong Min-ji)
. Progress report (Alan Timblick)
. Opening remarks (Park Won-soon)
. Presentations: SMG Office of Education (Nam Mi-sook), Gwangjang Elementary School (Park Kyeong-a), Marriage Immigrant (Yamaguchi Hideko), Purun Citizen Community (Moon Jong-seok)
. Q&A, opinions (Jasmine Lee)
. Closing remarks (Park Won-soon)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

You bet

There was an article about lotteries in Korea in Tuesday's Korea JoongAng Daily*.
What struck me was not the boom in bets, a classic in times of crisis, but the picture illustrating the article: I've known this store in Sanggye-dong for 15 years.

It used to be a small convenience store at the Southeastern corner of Sanggye Jugong Apt 10 Danji, between Madeul and Nowon stations, at the intersection of Dong-ro (the vertical backbone East of Jungnangcheon, along subway Line 7) and Nowon-gil / Banghwa-ro. That's a major crossroads surrounded by densely populated appartment blocks (clockwise: Jugong 7, 9, 10, and a medium-sized Daelim complex), but a rather quiet place because of the local urban development model. Like Jamsil, Nowon has been redevelopped during the eighties following a basic scheme: tombstone buildings lined up along a wide highway, with shopping areas concentrated near subway stations, except for small peripheral clusters like this one.

This store also happened to sell Lotto tickets, and one day, one customer won the national grand prize. Then it happened again, and I remember how people started talking about it. The place soon gained a reputation of lucky charm, drawing players from all over the country like a magnet. And a genuine big win epidepic followed, feeding the buzz. Last time I passed by they had already claimed a dozen or so grand prize, including two almost in a row.

Over the past decade, the place has radically changed: most of the space is now reserved for lotto players, who can write down their hopefully winning combos on large tables. Non-lotto sections, reduced to the minimum, propose mostly snacks and side dishes for players.

I don't know how many gazillion wons are spent every week on tickets in this mecca of Korean lotto, but probably too much for such a not so affluent area.

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* "
As economy dips, Koreans say 'You never know'" (Korea JoongAng Daily 2011106)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Yeouido Global Business Support Center

It's now official: Seoul Global Center will open YGBSC on December 16th. Here's the official announcement:

New Global Business Support Center Opening in Yeouido

Seoul Global Center is opening 'Yeouido Global Business Support Center' on December 16 to assist foreign entrepreneurs through free business counseling and research. It is also offering free office space, millions of KRW worth, at the YGBSC for qualified entrepreneurs seeking to establish their business in Seoul. YGBSC's mission is to help your difficulties in doing business in Seoul and to provide a number of mentoring sessions of experienced consultants in tax, finance, patent, etc. to take you forward. Also 3 dedicated full time staffs and 3 Gu officers will be there for not only 5 selected entrepreneurs also any other business people to encourage and motivate. YGBSC is ready for those who have lack of information due to language barriers and face difficulties with the high cost of offices as well as Korean's uncertainty about doing business with foreign entrepreneurs.

Here you can find more specific services YGBSC offers.

Comprehensive consultation and support
- General counseling on business opportunities in Seoul
- Market research services on specific business topics based in demand
- Provide business information regarding Foreign Direct Investment Laws & others
- Provide information to aid settlement by addressing daily living concerns regarding housing, medical services, transportation, etc.
- Video consultations with specialists on daily living concerns
Business researching services & partner searching
- General research of information on establishing new business and investing
- Expert research on specified fields or statistics related area
- Partner searching service
Business networking in Seoul
- provides opportunities to network and build relationship among the foreign business people and Korean business individuals and groups

Incubation Office Service
- Location: Yeouido Global Business Support Center (in-house)
- Duration of lease: Up to six months (renewable lease depending on evaluation)
- Equipment provided free of charge: Office equipment including computer, internet, etc & 1:1 Business consulting

For more information about YGBSC, visit, or contact Youhwa Jang at 02-2075-4112,

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Monday, December 5, 2011

Hong Bok (Seoul)

The Yeonhui-dong (my "Yummy-dong"!) - Yeonnam-dong area is full of authentic and affordable Chinese restaurants, each one with its own flavors and specialities. Like some of its neighbors (e.g. "Ha Ha") Hong Bok serves authentic food from Northeastern China.

Today, we tried lamb skewers, fish mandu, and hwang mandu from Shandong and Jilin provinces.

Fish mandu? a true delicacy, boiled to perfection. Hwang mandu (pork) being filled with big chunks, each ingredient comes with a bang.

Lamb skewers taste terrific, and not too strong for Korean palates (many locals have a poor memory of lamb following a doomed promotion ages ago, and the smell of this meat can be an issue). Marinated, seasoned with herbs, and served with paprika, the dish makes you travel even further than across the Yellow Sea. Central Asia, maybe?

Don't be afraid to order the set of 14 skewers: each one is not bigger than a tiny finger, and they're fun to BBQ at your table. We started to line them like rows of table football players, but the tenants told us to hold them in packs because it's as efficient, and much less tedious to turn them in bulk. See the small dents on each corner of the stove? You use them to push the meat to the end of the sticks.

Hong Bok is on Seongmisan-ro (formerly Dongjin Market street), the first street between Donggyo-ro and Yeonhui-ro South of the railway.

Hong Bok (restaurant)
224-41 Yeonnam-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, ROK
(new address: Mapo-gu, Seongmisan-ro 189)
Tel +82.2.323.1698

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Three out of four Korean single senior households are poor

SERI just issued* a distressing focus on Korean elder citizens: the relative poverty rate for single senior households, a booming segment of the population, is by far the highest among OECD members (76.6%).

An embarrassing fact for the most Confucian nation: as it experiences spectacular and rapid demographic and social changes, welfare systems are obviously not keeping pace. A lot has been done at the national and local levels, and elder citizens can enjoy a large array of free programs thanks to Seoul districts, from computer training to dance and cultural activities. Following 2008 reforms, single senior citizens with low revenues pay less for utilities, and can receive free food supplies on a daily basis, but not everybody is caught in the safety net. We've all seen elderlies collecting paper or cardboard on the streets, or poor farmers live in complete isolation in rural areas.

The challenge will grow bigger for ageing Korea. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of senior households almost doubled to 1.7 to 3 million, and the proportion of single senior households progressed from 31.4 to 34.2%. They now represent 1.02 million households or 6% of the total, a proportion expected to double by 2030. By 2050, 37% of the population will be over 65 (the equivalent to 70% of the working age population), compared to 7% in 2000 (10%). Like Japan, Korea might consider foreign or even robotic hands to cope with the task: there are only 3.3 long-term care workers per 1000 population over the age of 65 providing formal care, compared to 6.1 in average for the OECD**.

Parents used to take care of the grandparents***, but now it's often the other way round. Among new pensioners, many helped their descendants during the periods of crisis that have struck Korea since 1998, cutting into their own savings. The future doesn't look much better: we recently mentioned credit card threats (see
"The Earnit Kingdom: Loan Sharks Feeding Frenzy"), but many Koreans are also eating up their pension plans just to stay afloat. Poverty is also a matter of demographics: survivors in the couple tend to be women born before the democratization of superior education, with a high proportion of former housewives with a minimum pension.

Among the potential impacts on policies cited by SERI (Single Senior Households Should Be Target Group to Reduce Poverty, Financial Management Service for Low and Middle-Income Classes, Pension Splitting for Elderly Divorcees, Increasing Survivor Pension Benefit Rate for Elderly Women), a point seems to be missing: infrastructures and particularily retirement and nursing homes. There are solutions for daytime isolation, and silver centers and even cities are on the rise, but will the people who need them most be able to afford them?

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* "
Single Senior Households: Income Among the Aging Population" (SERI - December 5, 2011), data by Statistics Korea (
** "
Long-Term Care in Korea" (OECD - May 18, 2011)
*** In 1981, only 20% of people over 60 lived separately from their children, and the proportion rose to 41.7% in 1998. I don't have more recent figures but the trend must have continued

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dice are broadcast

December 1, 2011: today, 5 new networks started broadcasting on Korean TV.

Licenses were awarded last year, without any surprise since the dominant (and rather conservative) daily newspaper groups claimed all the four spots granted for general channels:
. jTBC (channel 15) for JoongAng Ilbo, clearly the most ambitious 'newcomer'. The brand echoes the historic TBC channel founded by the family and disbanded under Park Chung-hee, and the group's J series (reminder: the broadcasting and magazine units have recently merged into Jcontentree). As we saw earlier, this group intends to become a multimedia powerhouse, and if it produces successful contents (eg millions spent on dramas), it can leverage existing ties with most international majors.
. MBN (channel 16) for MBN. According to what I saw today, Maeil Business Newspaper will make the most of its scenic view on Namsan and its Hanok Village, just like YTN does with its unique view on Seoul Station.
. Channel A (channel 18) for Dong-A Ilbo
. TV Chosun (channel 19) for Chosun Ilbo. The group will target an older audience than jTBC, and I hope they will aim for quality.

The fifth license was for an all-news channel, and Yonhap News Agency (News Y, channel 23) was unsurprisingly chosen to rival its former subsidiary YTN.

The market seems already saturated: the overwhelming majority of Korean households subscribe to pay TV on cable, IPTV, or satellite, receive hundreds of channels, and are heavy users for all new sorts of screens. Many players will fold, and KBS and SBS will necessarily take a hit, but the aim of the game was elswhere:
- on the defensive side: helping struggling but friendly newspaper groups as smartphones and tablets accelerate the substitution of paper
- on the offensive side: South Korea lacks global multimedia majors, and now jTBC joins CJ as a top contender.

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