The New Deal with South Korea’s US$136 billion recovery strategy

By Sean Nolan

Interview with Sungjoo Son, Director at the International Digital Cooperation Division, Ministry of the Interior and Safety, South Korea.

“The Korean New Deal will set the foundation for Korea’s next 100 years,” said President Moon Jae-in. The plan includes ten areas of focus, including AI in government, creating a unified data system, and widespread sustainability reforms.

The past 18 months have demonstrated how tech has helped South Korea in dealing with the pandemic. But that use of technology will continue post-pandemic, with the introduction of 5G, AI and more inclusive citizen services.

Sungjoo Son, Director at the International Digital Cooperation Division, Ministry of the Interior and Safety in South Korea, shares how the country adapted to the challenges of Covid-19. Looking to the future, he highlights the importance of using data for public sector services.

The New Deal 

The Korean government faces two challenges, recovering from an economic recession and maintaining transformation, its report stated. The Korean government will spend over US$136 billion on its New Deal, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Among its headline initiatives are plans to establish a universal insurance system that will provide benefits for unemployed citizens. It also looks to create a system of collecting, processing and combining data as the backbone of its digital transformation, it highlighted.

The Korean New Deal aims to create a digitally capable government that can “design and deliver personalised services to citizens”, says Son. Part of this programme is installing 5G wireless networks in all government complexes, the report explained.

The government is replacing existing connectivity with 5G to “create a more flexible work environment for government officials”, Son shares. 5G will reduce the reliance on desktop computers and give employees the ability to work from mobile devices, he states.

Not only will this provide more convenience, but it will also boost cybersecurity. 5G offers a more protected alternative to wifi, meaning the government can “guarantee the security” of networks for its employees, says Son.

The government is also introducing a feedback system for citizens as it looks to encourage them to become participants in policy implementation, Son emphasises. Citizens can highlight areas of improvement, such as buildings made unsafe by natural disasters or homeless people that are in danger, he continues.

Closing the digital divide 

Korea is expected to be amongst the ‘superaged societies’, where more than 20 per cent of the population is elderly, reported the Straits Times. The number of Koreans 55 years and older has increased from 11 million in 2011 to 16.7 million in 2020, the World Economic Forum states.

Part of its plans for creating services for citizens is ensuring digital services are easily accessible, in particular to the elderly. The country plans to introduce more AI-enabled assistance which can verbally communicate with citizens, says Son.

Whereas computers and websites require some skill, verbal AI communication is “accessible and understandable” for all competency levels, he explains. Emerging technologies require “lab development”, and with government budget restraints, private companies were responsible for building these voice tools, says Son.

One example of this AI system can call citizens to inform them about the vaccination schedule and about the possibility of abnormal reactions, reducing hesitancy about the vaccine. It also  helps to monitor side effects amongst citizens and relay this information to healthcare providers, the press release states.

The government is setting up 1000 digital competency centres around the country to help equip Korean citizens with new skills. This programme will run in tandem with the widening of free wifi coverage to “ensure universal access for ordinary people”, says Son.

Using data in pandemic response 

The Korean government started a series of digital initiatives to support citizens during the pandemic. One of these applications used businesses’ inventory data to give citizens a map of shops that had masks in stock, Son explains.

This was made possible by the nation’s open data. It has the world’s most open, useful and reusable data policies according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Before the pandemic, local authorities used these platforms to share information such as traffic and weather conditions.

The Korean government also used credit card companies to distribute relief funds to over 2 million households, reported the Korea Herald. Because these companies had the data and infrastructure to transfer money conveniently, they were able to send payments within two days of a citizen’s application, wrote Nikkei Asia.

Using credit cards made it easier to put in place helpful conditions. For instance, money could only be spent at small and medium sized businesses, to support them during the pandemic.

Data is central to digital identity, a critical aspect of contact tracing. Officials accessed credit card records of Covid-19 patients, allowing for more accurate tracing with less reliance on memory, explains Son.

Although there was “a lot of concern about privacy and efficient information protection”, the nation was able to find “social consensus”, says Son. Korean society broadly acknowledges that technology is not an obstacle, but has the potential to be a “solution to the problem”, he says.

Looking to the future 

The Korean government aims to ensure no countries are “left out in the era of digital transformation”, says Son. Discussions about AI and digital identity are already in progress, with a focus on cross-border movement of data to smoothen immigration processes, he explains.

“Data will be key for the future,” says Son. He highlights how Korean researchers are exploring how data and AI can be used to analyse crime caught on CCTV. This system will help “calculate the degree of danger and act against it”, explained IFSEC Global.

The government will need to make big data part of their “daily job” rather than only being used at “special occasions”, says Son. Every government official should know about what data they produce and what database they are managing, he continues.

While collecting data is not a new initiative for the Korean government, the country’s New Deal looks to make the use of it more convenient and frequent. Citizens can expect more tech-enabled services centred around them, with a focus on reducing the digital divide.