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Implementing policy to bridge Korea’s digital divide

Written by  Dr Yeon-Gi Son
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Dr Yeon-Gi SonIssue:Asia-Pacific I 2005
Article no.:4
Topic:Implementing policy to bridge Korea’s digital divide
Author:Dr Yeon-Gi Son
Organisation:Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity & Promotion
PDF size:84KB

About author

Dr Yeon-Gi Son is the President and CEO of the Korean Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion (KADO), Korea. KADO is a public organisation charged with bridging the digital divide, ensuring free access to information and communications throughout Korean society. Before joining KADO, Dr Son was President and CEO of the Information Culture Centre of Korea. At present, Dr Son is a member of the Korean National Commission for UNESCO and of the Advisory Committee for Policy of the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs. Dr Son was awarded the Presidential Award in 2000 and the order of Cambodian National Merit in 2003. Dr Son earned a PhD and Masters in Sociology from Texas A&M University, a Bachelor of Science from Utah State University and a Bachelor of Arts from Korea University, Seoul.


Article abstract

Korea is an information society leader; it has the highest broadband Internet penetration in the world. The Korean Government has developed a stream of policies over the years aimed at reducing the digital divide and promoting the digital inclusion of Korean society as a whole–young and old, handicapped, city dwellers or rural inhabitants. The government provides all these with subsidised or free equipment and Internet access. Now its focus is shifting towards promoting the more effective use of IT.


Full Article

Society and the digital divide Korea holds track records to prove its status as an information society. In 2003, Korea’s IT industry generated 15.6 per cent of the country’s GDP, while IT exports accounted for 30 per cent of total exports. Korea is the world's most wired society. It has the highest broadband penetration rate in the world. As of June 2004, there were 11.61 million subscribers to broadband Internet access. Internet adoption rates surged from 1.9 million in 1997 to 29 million in end 2003–65 per cent of the population. Korea established a one-stop e-government online service centre at, which provides guides for 4,000 categories of civil services and 393 categories of civil requests. E-government services handle such matters as resident certificates, real estate, automobiles, tax and corporate document matters – or about 70 per cent of all of the government’s civil services. Korean e-commerce surged from 50 billion won in 1998 to 177 trillion won in 2002 [symbol – KRW; US$1 equals approximately1065 KRW]; this corresponds to 12 per cent of the country’s total transactions. Despite the progress, however, Korea is challenged by its digital divide. The divide threatens to reduce the return on the nation's investment in information and to undermine its social unity as well, becoming a burden on society. In the information society, 'knowledge' and 'information' are resources that generate wealth and are instrumental in every social activity. Accordingly, the government’s policy emphasises efforts to bridge the divide. Almost 35 per cent of Korea’s population, about 13 million people, remains out of the information loop. A significant part of this group consists of the handicapped, senior citizens, residents living in agrarian and fishery villages and low-income people. Meanwhile, Korea will soon have 30 million of Internet users and is in the process of moving from the 'Internet 1-Generation' to the 'Internet 2-Generation'. In the Internet 1-Generation, the major issue was the 'Internet literacy', so the policy focus was upon educating people to access the Internet. In the Internet 2-Generation, its key issue is usually how people can make the most of the Internet in their daily lives. Accordingly, an important national task for the government is to reduce the gap, among the 65 per cent of Korea’s population that uses the Internet, between those who use the computer and the Internet productively and those who simply use it as consumers. Concerning the digital divide As the general level of access to and use of information increases, there is a trend towards further widening the digital divide. The profession or gender triggered digital divide has been narrowed to a certain extent. However, the age, education or income-triggered digital divide remains prevalent and might be getting even larger. Figure 1 shows that the digital divide has increased by 43.2 per cent using the age benchmark, 43.1 per cent measured by education and 25.1 per cent by income group, between 1999 and 2003. Lately, such factors as age and educational level tend to play a larger role in affecting the digital divide. Figure 2 shows that 94.3 per cent of the population in their twenties uses the Internet versus only 14 per cent of people over 50. By education, 87.7 per cent of those who graduated from college or higher are the Internet users versus only 8 per cent of those who graduated from junior middle school. The digital divide that separates handicapped people from non-handicapped tends to be larger in Korea than in the West. In Korea, 27.6 per cent of the handicapped are the Internet users, compared with 39.1 per cent in the US, or 36 per cent in the UK. The digital divide between the handicapped people and the non-handicapped people was estimated at 14.8 per cent in the US and 21 per cent in the UK, compared with 37.9 per cent in Korea. Bridging the digital divide–policy implementation Government efforts to bridge digital divide The government drive to bridge the digital drive has been under way since 1988, when the government kicked off its computer classes for villages project. In 1992, the government inaugurated a regional information project aimed at narrowing the digital divide. In the late 1990s, the government gave these efforts a higher priority. In 1999, Cyber Korea 21 established the second-phase basic digital inclusion plan and bridging the digital divide was designated as one of the tasks needed to ‘build a nation that can make the best use of the computer in the world.’ This project had opened 100 IT centres at post offices nationwide by 2002. The government also provides assistance for companies that develop and market information devices and software for handicapped people. In April 2000, the plan to build a ubiquitous knowledge information society was established at the fourth information strategy meeting. Under the plan: √ Internet education took place at post offices, social welfare centres and community libraries; √ PCs were handed out and a five-year Internet use fee was granted to 50,000 low-income family students; √ Housewives received Internet education; √ A general information website was opened for the handicapped. In June 2000, the plan for information education for 10 million people was established to provide information technology (IT) education for the general public, rural and senior citizens. In January 2001, the act on bridging the digital divide was enacted. The act formalised a comprehensive policy and a structure, to bridge the digital divide throughout Korean society. In September 2001, 14 ministries including MIC established the comprehensive plan for narrowing the digital divide, which instituted cross-ministerial efforts to bridge the digital divide. Implementing policy to bridge the digital divide Bridging the digital divide means reducing the gap in information access between those who live in a big city and a small one, between those who are affluent and who are not and between the handicapped and the non-handicapped. The policies that have been implemented so far can be summed up as: deployment of Internet broadband access for residents in villages and small towns, hand-out of desktops and Internet devices to those who cannot afford to buy them and installation of Internet access points in public places. The government has financed KT's (ex-Korea Telecom) deployment of broadband networks since 1999. The government provided loan assistance to KT so that KT could deploy the broadband Internet access network across 205 villages and 1,208 towns. As a result, 93 per cent of the homes in agrarian and fishing villages (3.47 million) were connected to the Internet by the end 2003 and half of these are now using broadband Internet. Meanwhile, the government has added the public access points at government offices, post offices, etc., for people who have no desktop at home or who have trouble using the Internet at home. In 2003, even the smallest town, village or ward, has at least one public access point. The Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs has fostered 180 villages as the information model villages since 2001 to increase information access for rural residents and let them use Internet for their daily life. Likewise, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs & Fisheries is setting up about 250 information living rooms at selected fishery villages. The government provides free or inexpensive Internet service to students in primary, junior and senior middle schools. The government finances PC leases and Internet fees for 50,000 students from low-income homes. About 40,000 used desktops were handed out at welfare facilities, rural homes and to the handicapped. Since 2003, the government has provided aid devices that help the handicapped use computers. Low-income homes and the handicapped are entitled to discounted rates for fixed and mobile phones. Promoting information use through education and content development To reduce the gap in Internet usage, the government has implemented massive IT education programmes that target people with little information access. A total of 13.8 million people benefited from this project by June 2002. In July 2002, a second-phase plan was established which focused on practical education. Under this programme, 5 million farmers, fishermen, labourers, handicapped and senior citizens, are receiving elementary and mid-level IT courses. Meanwhile, about 30 types of content have been developed, available at, to help senior citizens and the handicapped make better use of IT. Establishing the legal foundation In January 2001, the act on bridging the digital divide was enacted to establish programmes for bridging the digital divide. In January 2002, the guidelines for providing senior citizens and the handicapped with IT access were drawn up to help these people make better use of computers and the Internet. New directions to bridge the digital divide Stages of the digital divide It is necessary to identify the concept about the stages of the digital divide to establish policies to bridge the digital divide. Discussions among the scholars are summed up in Figure 2, which introduces three stages of IT accessibility. Stage one simply promises access to IT devices and services. The second stage is IT literacy, which is concerned with the skilful use of IT devices and information. The third stage calls for users to make productive use of IT in their daily lives and generates digital opportunity. Future directions As Korea becomes a full-fledged information society, it becomes necessary to shift policy focus from increasing IT access or ownership towards its skilful use. The concept of the information gap must also evolve to provide digital inclusion and digital opportunity. Digital inclusion stresses the importance of including everyone in the information society rather than stressing the gap between those who can use information and those who cannot. The emerging concept of digital opportunity seeks to enhance the productive utilisation of information. This means that the goal of policies that seek to reduce the information gap is now to reduce the imbalance between those who utilise information productively and those who do not, so that Korea can enhance its return-on-investment in information and improve its competitiveness. Korea must now shift the focus of its IT policies towards improving productive nature of IT. The policy drive to narrow the information access gap that still exists must continue, if only to keep Korea’s citizens equal to the challenges that the future launch of new IT devices and services that it will surely bring and to forestall the creation of a new gap in the future.

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