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The Peninsula

Yoon Suk-yeol and South Korea’s Digital Platform: A “Smarter” Future?

Published April 26, 2022
Category: South Korea

Upon his election, president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol vowed to turn South Korea into a leading digital economy befitting the era of Digital Earth. In addition to the physical relocation of the presidential office from the Blue House to the Ministry of National Defense in Yongsan, the upcoming Yoon administration is looking to transition into a “digital platform government.” By digitizing forms of governance through big data and artificial intelligence (AI), Yoon hopes to foster greater connectivity and communication with the public. However, to create an effective, lasting, and “smarter” digital governance, Yoon needs to heed to past mistakes, allocate resources and respective responsibilities to specific sectors, and effectively collaborate with his advisors and other relevant professionals; a one-stop digital platform is not something that can be created overnight.

The establishment of a wide-ranging “Digital Platform” of governance has been a leading slogan for Yoon since the campaign. For example, the implementation of a “digital economic vision” was one of the first pledges that the Yoon camp publicized following his party nomination. From the list of three goals and six strategies under the agenda, Yoon has placed special emphasis on both big data and artificial intelligence (AI). With the understanding that AI plays a central role in “the future of all aspects of a digital economy including industries, biotechnology, mobility, smart city, administration, defense, and education,” Yoon promised that he would provide the necessary resources and infrastructure for AI proliferation. Furthermore, with regards to big data, he intends to establish a “one site total service” system that would manage all administrative issues ranging from resident registrations to the management of property.

Since Yoon’s victory in early March, the transition committee team has retained such emphasis on digital governance. In the past month, the committee has organized and implemented the Digital Platform and Government Public Innovation task forces, in addition to the existing Blue House Innovation team. The two task forces are currently in collaboration to create a shared information platform among the various governmental sectors and are brainstorming ways to further engage the public through increased access to information. The first meeting for the Digital Platform taskforce was held on April 5 to review past efforts under the incumbent Moon administration and discuss future proceedings for the digital “paradigm shift.” Following the first meeting on April 17, the transition committee team also hinted that the Digital Platform task force would be upgraded to a separate public-private committee headed by the presidential office following the official launch of the Yoon administration on May 10.

While the specific programs and subsidiary working groups for the Digital Platform task force have not yet been established, many have attempted to envision the transition committee’s outlook based on Yoon’s previous statements. In the long-term—and as foreshadowed throughout his campaign—Yoon aims to create “the world’s greatest AI cloud computing infrastructure” that can be applied to education, administration and even defense sectors. He has also pledged to establish government-led “AI ethics” to combat the potential threats to security. Other goals also include the commercialization of sixth-generation (6G) services, which is hoped to be achieved by around 2028 to 2030 according to the Ministry of Science and ICT. With the extensive outreach of Yoon’s digitization, there is also speculation that the Digital Platform task force may aim to expand or give great autonomy to Statistics Korea, which is currently part of the Finance Ministry.

The proposed digital transition of the government is innovative, but also incites numerous concerns due to its great scope and ambitions. A part of the concern stems from Yoon’s seemingly limited understanding of digitization. For instance, during one of the debates prior to the election, Yoon was flagged by then-contender and now-transition committee chairman Ahn Cheol-soo for being unable to differentiate between hardware and software infrastructure, and for merely arguing that “the speed of information data must be accelerated” for a successful digital economy without subsequent explanations. And while Yoon’s digitization efforts are now being supplemented by the assistance of the various task forces and even Chairman Ahn—the same man who had once criticized his lack of attention to detail—there are added concerns due to Yoon’s tendencies to unilaterally commit to objectives without prior and full consultations. The most notable case was his announcement to relocate the presidential office from the historic Blue House to the Ministry of National Defense, which many criticized as a hasty, underprepared, and underdiscussed decision.

As leaders learn from their predecessors, president-elect Yoon can turn to historical examples of digital transitions in governance. For example, during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the government similarly undertook an effort to digitize government documents under the banner of ‘e-ji won (electronic garden of knowledge)’[1] in hopes of creating an easier and a more accessible administrative service for the public. Former president Roh was also nominated as one of the 50 individuals who helped to successfully lead a digital government for such efforts. Yet, while the Roh administration’s efforts are hailed as pioneering attempts at digitization, they also encountered numerous difficulties in achieving a complete transition. One such difficulty was the need for cooperation among the different governmental sectors in extending the system beyond the bounds of basic administrative capacities such as the issuance of documents.

President-elect Yoon has similarly prioritized the removal of boundaries in information among the different sectors of the government—including the various transportation, health, and safety related ministries—as the primary goal for the Digital Platform task force. But cooperation will be difficult to achieve if he is unable to heed to his advisors and participate in well-rounded and well-informed working groups prior to the implementation of subsidiary policies. This is especially the case with the prospect of the Digital Platform task force evolving into a separate presidential committee, as newborn committees often experience difficulties in arranging the overall division of labor and overseeing developments of relevant public and private groups.

Therefore, Yoon needs to listen to and collaborate with his advisors and relevant professionals in driving these significant changes. This would include performing extensive cost-benefit analyses for prioritizing investment, as well as examining the status of national capacities to identify sectors in need of reform more than additions. For example, instead of merely adding courses and scholarships dedicated to technology, further deliberation and research are needed to account for current drawbacks in education including the downfall of South Korea’s top engineering schools.

While Yoon deserves credit for being innovative, innovation will only become an asset for South Korea if it is able to result in positive gains while minimizing the costs.

Sea Young (Sarah) Kim is a Contributing Author at the Korea Economic Institute and visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington for the East-West Center-Korea Foundation U.S.-ROK Cooperation in Southeast Asia program. The views expressed here are her own.

Image from Shutterstock.

[1] ‘’E’ for electronic, and ‘ji won,’ short for ‘ji-sig ui jeong-won,’ or ‘garden of knowledge.’ ‘Ji won’ can also be expressed in Chinese characters, or han-ja, as ‘知園.’

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