Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 197-199
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Technology Transfer and International Production: The Development of the Electronics Industry in Korea. By Jin W. Cyhn. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2002. Pp. xv+317. $95.
Few nations have made such rapid strides in industrial development as South Korea. In recent years, numerous publications have addressed the reasons for the country's spectacular industrial ascent, but Jin Cyhn's Technology Transfer and International Production takes up a largely unexplored topic, the efforts of Korean firms to upgrade their technological capabilities [End Page 197] by manufacturing products marketed under familiar labels. Dubbed "original equipment manufacturing" (OEM), this has resulted in a flood of television sets, computer monitors, videocassette recorders, and other products that bear the brand names of well-known Japanese, American, and European companies but in fact have been made in Korean factories.
To be sure, many other countries have served as export platforms for foreign firms; what differentiates OEM from simple subcontracting are extensive, interactive relationships between Korean manufacturing firms and the overseas firms that initiate products and attend to their subsequent sales and service. As a result of the technological competencies derived from these relationships, Korean firms have not had to content themselves with the manufacture of products created elsewhere, but have taken an increasingly active role in the engineering, design, and international marketing of new generations of products, many of them bearing Korean brand names.
Although the topic is well chosen, Cyhn's treatment is less than adequate. Technology Transfer and International Production began as a doctoral dissertation, and it very much reads like one. The book opens with a plodding rendition of different theories of the role of technology in economic growth, followed by an equally pedestrian discussion of the virtues of OEM. Then comes a predictable narrative of the emergence of the Korean electronics industry and the role played by the central government and large conglomerates (chaebol) in stimulating its development. The book's core consists of case studies of various Korean firms, all of them in the computer and electronics industry, that have successfully engaged in OEM.
The case studies are mostly recitations of the working relationships forged between Korean and foreign firms. Cyhn correctly notes that a great deal of successful technology transfer entails learning and applying tacit skills that cannot be communicated by reading books or scrutinizing blueprints, but the reader learns little of how this actually occurred. Although the case studies of technology transfer note some of the technical problems that were addressed, the processes through which they were resolved remain largely unexplored, leaving the reader to ponder the significance of tantalizing references to lectures, training sessions, tutorials, benchmarking, and comments about the significance of detailed specifications for the upgrading of technical capabilities. Cyhn notes an unwillingness by Japanese firms to share advanced technologies, but the reader can only wonder how Korean firms were able to overcome this.
In addition to problems of substance, the book suffers from a serious lack of editorial oversight. Besides being repetitious and overlong, it is marred by the liberal use of abbreviations that are defined only once, if ever. This results in monstrosities such as "unlike in the past, firms' TCs had increased to become as high, if not higher, than the GRIs and that their main partners in ITD efforts have been MNEs rather than domestic GRIs" (p. 127). [End Page 198]
As Cyhn notes, learning how to use and develop new technologies "is most effective when it is interactive" (p. 275). Unfortunately, the exact nature of the interactions between Korean and foreign firms is never spelled out in sufficient detail. A plausible case can be made that many Korean firms have developed substantial technological capabilities by functioning as OEM manufacturers; what is lacking is a clear account of how they were acquired. With some editorial assistance, the research upon which the book is based could have been distilled into a useful journal article about Korea's ventures into OEM manufacturing and the consequent upgrading on the country's industrial technologies. As...