In Korea’s Messenger Market, Will Security Trump Emoticons?
2014 10월 13

Eric Cornelius Article

Until a couple of weeks ago Koreans had never heard of Telegram, the super-secure Berlin-based messaging app that is now causing waves. Telegram is attracting droves of Korean users away, for increased security. In Korea, KakaoTalk is installed on 95% of smartphones, and Kakao messages surpassed SMS messages a few years back. Kakao is known for its ease of use and expressive emoticons.

But now Kakao, which has established a near-monopoly in Korea, is facing a serious challenger on its home turf - Telegram.

The Korea JoongAng Ilbo tells us where this all began.

"On Sept. 18, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office established a new cyber investigation team, according to the office of New Politics Alliance for Democracy Rep. Chang Byoung-wan, who is also a member of the Science, ICT, Future Planning, Broadcasting and Communications Committee of the National Assembly. The purpose is to prevent cyber defamation and the spread of false information."

The idea sparked controversy and it later transpired that the chat records of the deputy head of the left-wing Labor Party, Jeong Jin-u, had been tapped by the authorities using a warrant.

That spooked people across Korea.

These frightened folks, especially those in sensitive positions, started looking for secure, encrypted alternatives. Telegram came up as the best solution. It’s now at the very top of the free apps in the Korean Apple App Store, and is nearly in the top ten on the far more competitive Google Play store.

Apple App Store Free App Rankings (October 13, 2014)

Apple App Store Oct 13

Google Play Store Free App Rankings (October 13, 2014)

Google Play Store Oct 13

Over the past month, the app has become a social media superstar, racking up over 500 blog posts and nearly 77,000 tweets, according to Social Metrics. It’s commonly mentioned alongside competitor KakaoTalk, but also with the keywords “government” and “police”. News reports say that the app has become quite popular with prosecutors, police investigators and people working in the financial sector.

As a whole, Koreans are growing more security conscious about their online transactions and dealings. High-profile hacks, along with a long-overdue move away from ActiveX based security for financial transactions, has increased awareness of security risks.

While it is unlikely that these concerns (or the current rush to Telegram) will be enough to topple KakaoTalk, this does present an opportunity for Korea's number 1 messenger to beef up security, implement encryption, and market itself as a secure messenger, as well as Korea's 'cutest'. In view of Kakao's recent peer to peer payments service release, it is also essential that the comapny is able to convince users that their software and systems are secure.

Digital migration in messaging apps?

There is a flurry of press coverage in Korea these days about a so-called "digital migration" from Kakao Talk to foreign messenger apps.  As reported by The Korea Times,"Although KakaoTalk is the most popular mobile messenger in the country, a number of Korean users have migrated to foreign mobile messenger services such as Telegram after the prosecution threatened to start real-time monitoring of social media to crack down on libelous rumors shortly after President Park Geun-hye denounced such accusations as baseless."
The image below shows clearly the rapid rise of Telegram in the Korean market. Almost two weeks later (October 13th) the application is still the top downloaded free app in the Apple App Store, and has risen to number 3 in the Google Play Store.
UPDATE: Since this article was drafted Kakao has released a statement saying that they will introduce a 'privacy mode' for messeges: "The new privacy mode in Kakao Talk will encrypt chat records and erase received messages," Daum Kakao said, adding that the service will be launched this year. The new feature will be available for users from all countries, it added."
Written by Erik Cornelius
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