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February 12, 2018

How the Republic of Korea became a world ICT leader

By ITU News

In the Republic of Korea, ‘ubiquitous connectivity’ is not some aspirational industry buzz word. It’s a way of life.

With lightning-fast connections to streaming wireless Internet on a range of digital devices, Koreans are proudly some of the most connected people on the planet. And walking along the brightly lit streets of the capital, Seoul, provides a glimpse into the digital future for most of the rest of the world.

Digital payments are accepted at almost every store. Taxi drivers operate with not just one, but up to four or more screens mounted to their dashboard. And it’s not just the Republic of Korea’s urban youth who have adopted digital technologies, but in fact the whole country has embraced new technologies in everyday life.

A world leader in ICTs

Korea has a well-earned reputation as a global information and communication technology (ICT) leader, and it’s not hard to see why. Home to world-leading electronics and ICT companies such as Samsung, LG, SK, and KT — Korea’s economic growth is digitally delivered.

The Republic of Korea has some of the world’s fastest Internet speeds. It’s in the race to be first with 5G. And it leads the world in Internet penetration rates, with nearly every household online.

These are some of the reasons why the Republic of Korea has ranked in the top three of ITU’s Global Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Development Index (IDI) in each of the past five years. In addition, the country reigns supreme in the Bloomberg Index of ‘Most Innovative Economies.’

So how did the Republic of Korea emerge as a leader in tech? What steps allowed for the momentous leaps and bounds the country has taken towards digital transformation? And what can other countries learn from the experience of the Republic of Korea?

Republic of Korea’s journey as an ICT pioneer

It is no accident that this Asian nation became the world’s leader in tech. As the Republic of Korea emerged from the Korean War in the mid-1950s, they were one of the world’s poorest economies. But through decades of government interventions and investments in modern technology, the country has soared to become one of the most developed countries in the region.

In the ultramodern Gangnam district, the financial and business centre of Seoul, ITU News sat down with Dr Seung Keon Kim, Vice President of from the Korea Association for ICT Promotion (KAIT), to uncover the story of the Republic of Korea’s journey from the past to the digital future.

The Republic of Korea’s transformation is the result of the government’s ambition to speed transformation to the digital economy, says Dr Kim. He posits three major factors that have formed the basis for growth of the country’s digital economy: the advanced education system, cultural characteristics, and the “Government’s vision for ICT.”

21st-Century education

Firstly, the value of education is highly prized in the Republic of Korea. “[For] many people in my father’s generation, education was regarded as a ladder to overcome poverty.”says Dr. Kim.

The education system focuses on traditional subjects like Math and Science, which are basic prerequisites for many technical careers in the digital economy. However, students are not taught in a traditional way with blackboards and notebooks.

RELATED: Education for the 4th Industrial Revolution? Look inside the Republic of Korea’s classrooms of the future.

Instead, schools have integrated ICTs at all levels of the school system to foster “21st Century learners.”

“Wireless Internet, electronic blackboards, virtual reality (VR) devices, notebooks, tablet PCs, digital textbooks… are being used by individuals, teams, and classrooms.” — Professor Jeong Rang Kim

“The goal is to strengthen the 21st-Century learner’s capacity. In particular, we focus on 4Cs: Critical thinking and problem-solving, Collaboration, Character, and Communication. Nowadays, software education is in full swing, so we try to improve computational thinking,” says Professor Jeong Rang Kim from the Department of Computer Education, Gwangju National University.

‘Pali pali’

Education has been a necessary component to the digital transformation of the Republic of Korea, but according to Dr Kim, societal changes were expedited by cultural characteristics and especially Koreans’ desire to move “quickly” as a driving force behind their rapid adoption of ICTs.

“As many Korean people say, ‘pali-pali,’ it means ‘quick and quicker.’ This characteristic is very accustomed to ICT…” says Dr Kim. The ambition to move quickly towards new technologies, merged with the flexibility to adapt plans has made the Republic of Korea an agile competitor in today’s digital economy.

WATCH: Why the Republic of Korea is a world leader in ICT

To overcome the digital divide between urban and rural areas of the country, the Republic of Korea’s politicians decided to roll-out the Broadband Convergence Network (BcN) in 2004, and was a pioneer in connecting even the most remote areas. “We put the money in rural areas to overcome the digital divide… Many people said: ‘We need time to consider some things.’ But our leaders think: ‘OK, let’s do it now. And if some problems happen after that, we will fix it.’ ”

Key government role started decades ago

The government’s support for ICT development began as early as the 1990s, when Internet started its initial upswing. By the late 1990s, the Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity & Promotion (KADO) was set up to increase access to the Internet and supply digital literacy training to over 10 million inhabitants to be Internet-ready. The government also made direct investments into new technologies by dedicating a large portion of its national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to Research and Development (R&D) projects.

“The Republic of Korea is one of the best countries, as far as R&D budget is concerned. Our R&D budget is more or less around 5 per cent [of GDP], and maybe that’s a world first or second,” says Jong Lok Yoon, President of the National IT Industry Promotion Agency.

If this figure of 5 per cent seems low, consider that the country spends approximately 91 billion dollars on R&D, according to OECD data, making the Republic of Korea the second biggest spender (proportionately) next to Israel. With world-leading investments into the future of technology, the Republic of Korea is preparing for the 4th Industrial Revolution, with smart city technologies and next-generation wireless services.

Visions of the Future: Smart Cities, IoT and 5G

Busan Metropolitan City, the country’s second most-populated city, is as economically important as the Republic of Korea’s largest shipping port and one of the world’s Top Ten Largest Container Ports. In recent years, it is being reimagined as a Smart City of the future — using technology to improve the lives of its citizens — and propelling the country towards next generation technologies.

The pioneering Smart City of Busan boasts a “first of its kind” policy that was announced at ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference in Busan in 2014, said Vice Mayor for Economic Affairs in Busan, Kim Young-Whan during a Smart City Tour during the recent ITU Telecom World this autumn. In Busan, Smart City projects for community safety, traffic improvement, urban living and energy conservation are already being implemented. Open data projects and data monitoring systems are at work monitoring traffic flows and working with emergency services on real-time communications flows. Other test-bed projects including IoT-led solutions and cloud architectural projects are aiming to make life more convenient for Smart City dwellers.

5G leadership

In addition to Smart City technologies, the Republic of Korea is also leading the development of next generation wireless broadband technologies, and aims to deploy 5G earlier than any other country. 5G is expected to become the infrastructure backbone for the 4th Industrial Revolution. It is predicted that the Internet of Things revolution will reach more than 30 billion wireless connections by 2020. These devices will be constantly connected and will demand bandwidth supplied by 5G and next-generation services.

Visitors to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Republic of Korea, will have the chance to experience next-generation technologies. With the theme “Passion. Connected” Olympic organizers are integrating ICT throughout the Olympic programme. With 360 degree cameras, personalized viewing along with superfast 5G wireless, the country is viewing the Olympics as a world stage to unveil their unrivaled ICT infrastructure and an opportunity to debut a number of cutting-edge products.

RELATED: KT showcases 5G innovation at the Olympics in PyeongChang

KT, a leading wireless provider in the country, is planning to premiere their 5G services in PyeongChang.

“KT made it a goal to complete the intelligent network early, so it will be the pipeline of the 4th Industrial Revolution… We believe that at this Olympics will be the field that we can [share] our ICT technologies with the global community,” said Jiyoung Lee, Senior Public Relations Manager at KT.

It is clear that the Republic of Korea is in an ideal position to lead the future of 5G, Smart Cities and the 4th Industrial Revolution, and has valuable lessons for countries aiming to modernize their economies.

Lessons for ICT development

The Republic of Korea is keen to share its knowledge with the world, and has numerous ICT promotion agencies acting as intermediaries and educators for developed and developing countries.

“For underdeveloped countries, ICT is a very good tool for those countries. Because we just don’t want to give money or food, that’s only short term assistance. We want to [teach] them ‘how to catch a fish,’ and ICT is a good tool and a very good industry for supporting those countries,” says Dr Kim, Vice President of the country’s ICT Promotion Agency.

“Many countries ask, how can we develop? What is your suggestion or recommendation for other countries?” And Dr Kim’s answer: “If Korea can do it, any country can do it.”

For more insights on Smart digital transformation – what’s next? Download ITU News Magazine.

By Theadora Mills, ITU News

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How the Republic of Korea became a world ICT leader

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