(Epilogue) 2000-Year Korean History Digitized on CD-ROMs

By Yang Sung-jin

Facing a new millennium, Korea’s 2000-year history has been digitized on CD-ROM titles, putting together a vast amount of historical documents from the Three Kingdoms era to the Choson Kingdom.

Seoul Systems Co. recently finished the unprecedented project of digitization, opening a new chapter of in-depth research into Korea’s history.

In October, 1995, Seoul Systems unveiled the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty. The company has digitized “Samguk Sagi” (History of Three Kingdoms) and “Koryo Sa” (History of Koryo), the most authoritative source of the history of the Koryo Kingdom (918-1392).

In March of 1998, Seoul Systems pulled off another technical breakthrough, introducing the CD-ROM “Kojong-Sunjong Annals of the Choson Dynasty.”

The title contains the historical records of the last 63 years of the declining Choson Dynasty. Notably, both the Korean translation and complete Chinese texts are stored on the CD-ROM, enabling the user to easily compare them on-screen.

In fact, the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty, developed in 1995, cover only the 25 kings from King Taejo to King Choljong, excluding the last two monarchs, King Kojong (1864-1907) and King Sunjong (1907-1910).

The reason for the omission is that historians avoided translating the records, fearing distortions caused by Japanese imperialists (the annals in question were compiled between 1927 and 1935, when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule).

All together, Seoul Systems has successfully completed the digitization of 2000 years of Korean history, paving the way for value-added researches and studies.

“It was like building a modern version of the Great Wall of China,” intoned Lee Woong-keun, chairman of Seoul Systems.

Putting the highly complicated and incredibly large number of Chinese characters into a computerized database took an incredible amount of time and money. That’s why the National Center for Science Information Systems, a state-run research organ in Japan, bought a set of fonts from abroad, instead of developing its own.

The company which provided the powerful font system is none other than Seoul Systems Co., a medium-sized Korean company specializing in electronic publication and computer systems development.

It is little wonder that Seoul Systems has been hailed as a pioneer in developing a variety of fonts tailored to Asian languages _ mainly Korean, Chinese and Japanese. In 1998, the firm even garnered formal recognition in the form of a grand prize bearing the presidential seal of Korea, “The Information Culture Award.”

Not only the CD-ROM titles containing the precious Korean classics, but also the Chinese character input method developed by Seoul Systems have been referred to as significant technical breakthroughs which will speed up the computerization of Korean studies materials dramatically.

The original records of the 500-year history of the Choson Dynasty, stored in 1,893 volumes written in Chinese, are indeed overwhelming. It took nearly 26 years to translate them into Korean and Seoul Systems poured more than 5 billion won into the computerization of the invaluable historical documents.

Even though the project was obviously unprofitable, Lee gave the go-ahead and offered his private wealth as the funding source. Moreover, the former professor of Seoul National University set up the Korean Studies Database Institute, a research center devoted to preserving Korea’s precious cultural inheritance in the electronic format.

“It’s good to know that we have contributed `a bit’ to helping the world understand our culture and history,” Lee said.

The ripple effects of the CD-ROM “Annals of the Choson Dynasty” have been even greater than expected, Lee said. “Some professors who once monopolized the knowledge of the Choson Dynasty half-jokingly complained to us, saying that they cannot tell a lie any longer because anyone can search the CD-ROM and check if the information they give is correct.”

The CD-ROM title, however, would have been reduced to a mere pipe dream had Seoul Systems been unable to provide the necessary technology _ the font development.

Seoul Systems made headlines in early 1996 when the firm developed the revolutionary “Unicode” font system.

Unicode was originally only a conceptual cure-all for conflicting fonts which existed in each country, but then Seoul Systems developed computerized versions of 20,902 Chinese characters and 11,172 Korean characters, bringing the universally compatible code into reality.

Given that even a highly skilled technician can transfer only 50 new Chinese characters a day into the computerized font, the time-consuming labor that was required is not hard to imagine.

Now, the investment is starting to pay off. International players such as Adobe and IBM are trying to join hands with Seoul Systems to develop fonts for their publication programs, not the least because this small Korean firm has an almost unbeatable technological edge in the font development of Chinese characters.

Said Cho Ik-han, director of the Font Development Center at Seoul Systems, “Recently, we have reached a new standard in font development which is three times faster than the conventional speed, and foreign firms are very interested in our new technology.”

“Even though the database of the Kojong and Sunjong Annals is far smaller than the earlier CD-ROM Annals detailing the lives of the previous 25 kings, the difficulties were no less challenging,” Seoul Systems Chairman Lee said.

Unlike the previous CD-ROM project where the Korean translation of the Annals was available, Seoul Systems had to translate the 74-volume original text from Chinese into Korean without any support from the government.

The most troublesome task was developing a digital font which could express both Chinese and ancient Korean characters on one computer screen, a precondition for providing faster searches using both the Korean and Chinese texts.

It took three years to translate them and establish a database in the form of the CD-ROM, powered by the new font system enabling a search using both Chinese and Korean versions.

All in all, the new CD-ROM title represented the final touches of the ambitious project of electronically preserving the entire Korean version of the Choson Dynasty Annals.

Yet, Seoul Systems is not ready to call it quits. The company is now working on another project which aims to provide the original Chinese version of the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty. “We’ve already finished inputting the complete Chinese texts into the database and the CD-ROM title will come out late his year,” Lee said proudly.

Lee’s company, however, experienced serious troubles over the past year, which put the entire project of digitizing Korea’s history into jeopardy.

Seoul Systems was hit hard by the sudden economic downturn in the wake of the currency crisis in late 1997.

During the financial woes, its main customers suffered dismal sales and lost money outright, which in turn dealt a lethal blow to the fledgling info-tech venture.

Revenues suddenly dried up, markets disappeared. Seoul Systems’ stock price hit rock bottom _ 600 won per share _ at the worst moment. The entire business was turned upside down and a full shutdown was imminent. But the company strove to stay afloat and finally pulled out of the crisis.

“The time has come for us to bounce back,” declared Park Hyang-jae, who was appointed president and CEO of Seoul Systems late last year.

And Park does not mean a faraway dream plan. The company is marketing its flagship product T-LAN (telephone local area network) publicly, a technological feat that Park expects will revolutionize the way people communicate with each other.

Unlike other telecommunications networks (including conventional LAN), T-LAN adopts a fixed-line telephone network for its powerful LAN, thus cutting the cost by as much as 70 percent yet providing the same performance.

In short, corporate users need not put up the high cost of establishing a LAN in their offices.

According to Park, Seoul Systems has long worked on a new corporate vision and business items to join the whirling stream of the Internet revolution here.

In addition to T-LAN, Seoul Systems is pushing for VAN (value added network), which allows Internet payment, a key technology for e-commerce.

The company is also eyeing digital cataloging, a three-dimensional rendering of products on the Net, targeting Web-based sellers and distributors.

In short, Seoul Systems is zooming in on the corporate market and will stick to the booming Web business environments, Park explained.

Other fields are also in the target range of Seoul Systems, domain registration and Web hosting.

“While beefing up the units of CTS and fonts, Seoul Systems will emerge as a Web-based total business solution provider,” Park noted.

To that end, the company plans to strengthen its manpower and expand its financial basis.

Park, who ventured into the info-tech field after teaching computer science at a local college for 17 years, said the prospects couldn’t be better.

“Last May, Seoul Systems secured direct foreign investment worth $5 million from a Canadian firm and new offers for strategic partnerships and investment are flooding in,” Park said.

Seoul Systems’ challenging spirit to digitize the entire history of Korea and prominent technological edge in Web business is, after all, a “sole system” with which historians and ordinary users alike can tap into the immense treasury of historical insight.