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South Korea Focuses R&D Energies in Bid To Rekindle Its Weakened Tiger Economy

Next month's high-tech expo aims to galvanize new Korean research effort

ON Aug. 7, South Korea will open a international exposition dedicated to the present glory of future technologies.

For many Koreans, however, this giant, $1-billion fair has already raised the question: Whose technology? On the Expo grounds, futuristic buildings with Disneyesque gimmicks such as holographic images and a talking robot-tiger will show off the latest prototypes from scientific labs in 133 nations.

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Up to 10 million visitors, mainly Korean, are expected to see the exhibits during their three-month run.

The Expo mascot is a mischievous and magical baby elf named Kumdori, which is meant to inspire children to think about future technology.

Taejon Expo '93, as it is called, is an attempt by the government to wake up Koreans to the fact that their once-dragon-like economic engine is sputtering for lack of more advanced technology.

Little of the technology on display in the Korean exhibits has been created in Korea. "Unless we educate our people to appreciate technology better, we'll never have advanced technology," says Chin Hai Sool, a planner in the Ministry of Science and Technology.

A weakness in high-tech may be hard to believe for consumers around the world who have bought Korean exports. But in its race to riches in the '70s and '80s, Korea's big conglomerates, known as chaebols, relied on easy partnerships with foreign firms to produce labor-intensive goods while neglecting research in new technologies.

"Most of our research has been too directed at production and profits, not real technological development," Mr. Chin says.

Now Korea is paying for that neglect. Economic growth has slowed as Korean exports have become less competitive. Expo '93 is the latest example of an expensive catch-up effort.

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Korean officials were disappointed that the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul did not launch the country as a global economic power, much as the 1964 Olympics did for Japan. Expo is their second attempt to do so.

To put the Expo together, however, officials had to press other nations to participate and lobbied hard for sponsorship by the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions (BIE). This Expo is the first in a less-developed nation.

A basic dilemma for Korea is that the West and Japan have become stingy with their intellectual property. Imports of foreign technology into Korea have fallen since 1989. Unable to be tops in technology, about one-third of Korean exports now go to East Asian and former East Bloc markets.

In addition, China and Southeast Asian nations are copying the Korean model and producing cheap electronics and low-end manufactured goods for the world market. Korea is being squeezed between richer and poorer nations.

Adding to the problem is a rapid rise in wages since 1987 when democratic reforms unleashed higher labor costs that forced Korean companies to seek higher-value products. Many companies beefed up their research labs, but found themselves lacking.

"We just are not as developed as the United States and Japan," says Lee Han Baik, vice-president for research at Kia Motors Corp., which makes Ford's Fiesta car.

"It's very hard to invest even 4 percent of sales to * & D [as many big Western high-tech companies do]. We've had only about 23 years of real experience with the world economy. We're still a baby in technology.

"Korea will always be trying to catch up," he adds. "We can't do everything with a population of only 45 million. The government must chose only a few fields to compete in."

Last year, the government launched a "G-7 project" designed to focus research on select technologies. The ultimate aim is to make Korea the eighth member of the Group of Seven club of industrialized nations.

The project, which will require $5.1 billion in both private and public money, focuses on such emerging technologies as high-definition television, solar and electric cars, 256-RAM chips, advanced telecommunications, new drugs and agrochemicals, nuclear energy, artificial spices, satellites, and flat-screen TV.

Much of the research is being done in Taejon, which is being built up as Korea's science city with government research centers and the Expo (where a number of exhibits are permanent).

Yet many of the government's targeted technologies may be out of Korea's reach. The new civilian government under President Kim Young Sam appears to be lowering the nation's technology sights.

The new strategy, says Kim Chung Si, minister of science and technology, is to develop "intermediate core technology" designed to "enhance the competitiveness in main industries in as short a time as possible."

President Kim also wants to raise the nation's level of * & D to 5 percent of GNP by 2001, up from the present 2.1 percent. But his ministers have little faith that Korea can quickly develop its own technology. About 100 Russian scientists were invited to do research in Korea last year, and another 200 are arriving in 1993. They will work on such technology as plasma lasers and precision gyroscopes which the US and Japan will not share with Korea.

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