Korean challenge

A fund for web enterprises and a national 5G network to emerge from the crisis.
The COVID-19 experience becomes a technological resource for Seoul.

“South Korea Offers a Lesson in Best Practices”. Perhaps this headline from Foreign Affairs, which praised the South Koreans’ approach to fighting the pandemic back at the beginning of April, best sums up how this East Asian country of fifty million inhabitants took perhaps the most important steps in the right direction without wasting time. The solution was above all a technological one; a path the Koreans continue to build on. “It is a country that saw an early surge in coronavirus infections - and then used a mass of surveillance data to track anyone who might have come into contact with the virus”, writes the BBC. As anybody knows, back in late February, Seoul was battling the worst Covid-19 outbreak outside China, involving a religious group that covered up the infections. In May, there was a flare-up sparked by an outbreak in a nightclub, but it was dealt with quickly. How?  By screening the data and information of its citizens, as Justin Fendos, professor of cell biology at Dongseo University in Busan, explained to Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC technology correspondent (https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52681464):  “They have taken information methods that are normally used by law enforcement to catch tax evaders or to track criminals, and they have repurposed those for public health use” with three types of data use: credit and debit card transactions that show where someone has shopped, eaten or travelled; phone location logs obtained from mobile operators to understand where someone is; and surveillance cameras. This information is used to track people who have been infected but also to trace their movements in the days before they tested positive so people who may have been in close contact with them can be informed.

An issue of ethics
Although there has not been opposition from the Korean citizens, “it seems unlikely that such methods would prove acceptable in Western countries such as the UK”, concludes Cellan-Jones, “where a vigorous debate is under way about whether a contact-tracing app that stores some data centrally poses too big a threat to privacy”. However, Stephanie Hare, an independent researcher and author of Technology Ethics, does not agree: “The question”, she says, “should not be whether such methods are acceptable but whether they are necessary”. She adds, “South Korea is a really interesting case study and we shall learn from it”.

Here lies the point that interests us: Korea is not the only country or region (Kerala in India for example) that has managed to stem the virus: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar - the countries geographically closest to the Wuhan outbreak - have so far recorded 7 deaths and not even a thousand cases in total. And technology does not play such an important role in these countries. In South Korea, on the other hand, it was key: technology can do a lot, especially when shared.

A resource worth sharing
For example, the government has organised a series of webinars to meet the growing global demand for sharing its experience in the fight against the virus, so that everyone can adapt it to their own situation. The fourth webinar was on 3 June and the fifth on 10 June. Anyone can access and listen to Korean specialists with simultaneous translation into English, French and Russian through the web platform (http://medicalkoreawebinar.or.kr). Participants can also ask questions in real time. A state-of-the-art technology system... to talk about technology. By sharing it.

It is well known that this is the approach taken in South Korea: in fact, the exit strategy for the Covid crisis, which the government announced a month ago, has been combined with a previous idea that makes artificial intelligence and wireless communication centres based on 5G technology the pillars of a sort of new “New Deal”, to create jobs and stimulate growth. It is a long-term project that requires funding, although it has not yet been said how much will be needed. President Moon compared his vision to the New Deal launched by former US President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s to recover from the Great Depression. But State intervention, however necessary it may be, will be combined in a different way. According to economist Kim Jung-sik of Yonsei University in Seoul, cited by Bloomberg, Moon’s plan is designed to help new Internet-based web enterprises, but it probably will not involve the kind of spending that the term New Deal would seem to imply. “It is different from the traditional New Deal, which seeks massive jobs with massive spending. In fact, South Korea’s financial ammunition is increasingly limited after a series of spending measures to stimulate the economy.” What we know for now is that Seoul is planning to create a fund to support AI development, build robot test sites, and help companies to launch new services that use data based on the construction of a national 5G network. Well beyond the fight against Covid-19.