If any country in the world was prepared to deal with the consequences of a socially distanced world, it was probably South Korea.
A big part of that preparedness comes down to having one of the world’s most advanced internet infrastructures. Last year it became one of the first countries to switch on fifth-generation mobile services, and its household internet penetration rate was top among OECD members in 2018, at 99.5%.
So when the coronavirus pandemic hit, many aspects of South Korean society — from education to business — shifted online with relative ease.
But even in digital-savvy South Korea, the coronavirus outbreak has forced companies and citizens to rethink many aspects of their interaction with technology — finding new business models but also acknowledging some of the downsides.
“As COVID-19 spreads all over the world, [noncontact]-based platforms such as remote teleconferencing and online education are emerging sharply,” said Moon Hae-ju, secretary general at the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies in a forum.
“That is opening new chances and possibilities for the development of related technology and industries, but it is also causing side effects such as ‘infodemic’ phenomenon which describes massive proliferation of fake news and wrong information.”
As tech becomes an even bigger part of people’s lives, companies with cutting edge technology hope new revenue will soon follow.
A prime example is KT, the country’s second largest telecoms provider. One of the most basic tools in the fight against COVID-19 — social distancing — has unlocked demand for its 5G-powered live-streaming services.
For Seoul resident Park and her new husband, the service helped them have a family wedding ceremony despite several of her relatives living in Daegu, the epicenter of the outbreak in South Korea.
“I was concerned [about the wedding ceremony] because my grandmother and other relatives were in Daegu and couldn’t leave home,” Park said. Instead, about 50 family members took part in a virtual ceremony that was also watched by some 1,700 people on YouTube and other channels.
For the moment KT is offering this service as part of its “social responsibility” program, but says it is considering turning it into a money-earning business, given the increase in demand. Whether that demand will hold up once the population can travel again remains to be seen.
Another company seizing the moment to embrace digital is Hyundai Card, a credit card service subsidiary of Hyundai Motor, which is already thinking about moving beyond physical cards.
“We launched an AI-based chatbot that responds to about 50,000 inbound calls per month,” said Jin Sung-baek, digital strategic planning team leader at Hyundai.
Jin said that the company foresees the credit card service business eventually becoming largely digital, with AI services used to analyze customers’ consumption data and offer them customized services. “We are planning to launch more digitalized and customized services.”
The outbreak has also reinforced South Korea’s emphasis on AI and high-performance computing resources.
The government has been a keen supporter of AI, saying its speed and accuracy can play a significant role in supporting researchers and healthcare professionals in the diagnosis and screening of patients with severe symptoms.
Success in combatting the outbreak has home has led to success abroad for several companies.
Shares of South Korean coronavirus test kit makers have risen sharply over the last few months on the expectation that they will export the medical device to the US after President Donald Trump reached out to Seoul for supplies in March. Drug maker Seegene said last month that the US Food and Drug Administration approved emergency use of its test kit, the Allplex 2019-nCoV Assay.
Seegene share price had more than tripled from three months ago as of Friday, while Daejeon-based bio firm Sugentech saw its shares jump more than four times during the same period.
But as in other countries, South Korea’s rapid and efficient use of technology to tame the virus also raises concerns over privacy.
Under the Epidemic Prevention and Management Law revised in March, the health minister can access a huge amount of personal data on COVID-19 patients, such as their locations, methods of transport, medical institutions they visited and people they contacted.
The chief of the health authorities and municipalities can also access a patient’s credit card history, medical documents, CCTV footage, and mobile phone data, as well as track his or her locations. They can even access such data of people who are only suspected being infected.
Experts say one concern is that the government will use this data for commercial purposes after coronavirus pandemic ends. The government fueled such concerns earlier this month, when it announced that under its South Korean New Deal policy, it will establish infrastructure to collect, integrate, trade and otherwise use people’s personal data in the public, finance, and medical sectors.
“I am worried about the Finance Ministry’s digital New Deal plan. It sounds like the government is trying to use the data for business with excuse on privacy,” said Lee Kwang-suk, a professor of digital culture policy at Seoul National University of Science and Technology. “The government justifies private companies’ profits in the name of public health.”
In education, meanwhile, South Korea’s tech savviness has helped the country make a good start. Three telecom companies — SK Telecom, KT, and LG Uplus — charge no data use fees for students accessing EBS and other educational websites with their smartphones. Samsung, meanwhile, donated 30,000 Galaxy tablets and LG gave 6,000 smart pads to the education authorities, which in turn loaned them to children from low-income families.
Clement Kim, a secondary school student in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province, has not been to school in months, yet he still takes six classes a day. He even takes part in PE lessons, jumping up and down in his room at the teacher’s instruction, all thanks to his laptop and a fast internet connection.
Still Clement is yearning to get out of the digital world as schools begin to reopen.
“I want to go to school to see how my classmates are doing,” Kim said. “I have been at home for almost four months including the winter vacation. Staying at home has become my new life.”