The South Korean presidential election is less than three months away and the race is heating up. The election has centered on domestic issues such as real estate, the unemployment rate, and the lingering effects of the pandemic. However, underlying those issues one of the biggest concerns for South Koreans heading to the polls next March will be electing a candidate who can revitalize the economy and stabilize their lives. With the world increasingly becoming digitalized, that means having a plan for the information and communication technology sector.
The ICT sector is a critical part of the South Korean economy. In 2019, it accounted for 10.8 percent of South Korea’s GDP. Despite the slowdown during the pandemic, South Korea’s ICT exports reached a record high of $21.49 billion in November 2021, a 30 percent increase from the same time last year. ICT exports are expected to reach a new annual high this year. South Korea has a strong reputation as one of the global leaders in ICT, with leading electronics and IT companies such as Samsung, LG, and SK Hynix. With President Moon Jae-in’s Digital New Deal initiatives, the government has been supporting innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, the cloud, Internet of Things, and the metaverse.
Historically, many South Korean presidents have led a top-down approach to science and technology (S&T) to transform and fund key infrastructure and research and develop (R&D) programs. President Kim Dae-jung led an aggressive infrastructure push to provide nation-wide access to high-speed internet, which was crucial for South Korea’s ICT success. Roh Moo-hyun continued Kim’s IT priorities and established an e-government initiative in the 2000s to digitalize government services. Today South Korea ranks second in the U.N.’s E-Government Development Index. Whoever takes the Blue House in March 2022 will affect South Korea’s ICT atmosphere, if not direction, for next five years.
Unfortunately, many technology experts and business leaders in South Korea are concerned that candidates are not putting enough priority on the futuristic industry that could push Korea forward in the digital age. What are the key presidential candidates’ pledges for science and technology, particularly on ICT, so far and what would this mean for South Korea?
The Democratic Party candidate, former Governor of Gyeonggi Province Lee Jae-myung, announced the “Great Digital Transformation” initiative as his first campaign pledge. He plans to create over 2 million jobs while expanding South Korea’s digital territory, or nationalized information infrastructure, and increasing digital opportunities. Throughout the five-year plan, he plans to invest total of 135 trillion Korean won ($110 billion), with 85 trillion won from the government and 30 trillion won from private investment. Lee says this will create additional added value of more than 30 trillion won per year.
The three pillars of his digital transformation initiative include: first, cultivating talent and building data infrastructure, especially in IoT, the cloud and 5G/6G; second, expanding industrial, technological, and global territory in the digital space, including the metaverse, by focusing on six areas (AI, quantum technology, cybersecurity, blockchain, supercomputing, and semiconductors); and third, guaranteeing the public’s digital sovereignty.
Lee stated he would like to expand South Korea’s digital territory by building on the digital assets developed by previous presidents such as Kim’s high-speed internet network, Roh’s e-government and Moon’s data hub. Lee has recruited Jang Seok-young, a former vice minister of the Ministry of Science and ICT, as his ICT advisor. Jang played a critical role in commercializing 5G and developing the 2019 National AI Strategy within the Moon administration.
Based on Lee’s plan and personnel recruitment so far, it is unclear how his digital transformation will be different than Moon’s Digital New Deal. In practice, a Lee presidency may mean the continuation of Moon’s policies in this area.
The candidate of the opposition People Power Party, former prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol, on the other hand, has not announced an ICT policy vision yet. Based on his comments and speeches at various events, Yoon plans to take a free market approach and ease regulations to let businesses grow rather than having the government too involved.
At event hosted by the Korea Startup Forum in November, Yoon said he will actively support start-ups by creating “negative regulations” rather than the positive regulation currently in place and establishing a “one-stop” regulation system where one organization is fully in charge of all regulation-related measures from start to end. Yoon also promised that he will support telemedicine if he becomes president.
At the most recent Fourth Industrial Revolution event, Won Hee-ryong, former Jeju governor and now Yoon’s policy chief, announced that Yoon’s digital strategy includes establishing a virtuous cycle of AI and data governance, education, and job innovation to accelerate digital innovation, revitalize the platform economy, and establish an innovative and open public-private cooperation system.
Ironically, Yoon had kicked off his campaign committee with an AI version of himself delivering a speech, but his campaign pledge lacks detail on how he will incorporate AI and other technologies into South Korea’s digital economy. Judging from his comments so far, his ICT policies will involve less government-led initiatives compared to Moon administration and more control to the private sector.
Although he is not a leading candidate in this election, the People’s Party’s leader Ahn Cheol-soo has prioritized ICT policies from the beginning. Ahn is the only candidate with a science and technology background as a physician, scientist, and CEO of antivirus software company, Ahn Lab. He argues that S&T is a “live or die” issue for South Korea and the country needs a “science and technology president” that can bring about a second Miracle on Han River.
Ahn announced his 5-5-5 plan, which aims to nurture five Samsung-level global companies to bring South Korea into the world’s top five economies (G5) through the development of five super gap technologies. Ahn suggested these technologies potentially include nuclear energy, hydrogen energy, AI, semiconductors, and the content business. Ahn has also proposed reforming the current government structure and elevating the science and technology portfolio to the deputy prime minister level. He also proposed expanding the R&D budget to 5 percent of GDP.
From AI to 5G, the presidential candidates seem to recognize the importance of the ICT industry for the future economy. However, their ICT policy agendas have been buried under other priorities, scandals, and negative campaigns.
As we get closer to the election, South Korean voters will want to see more forward-looking policies that can elevate South Korea’s global economic status in the digital age and further develop its technological ambition. Hopefully candidates can provide more information during the policy debates over the next three months. For both Koreans and ICT industry watchers outside of South Korea, it is worth paying close attention to the candidates’ policies, as they will project where South Korea is headed for next five years.