Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Korea in a Post Covid-19 World, Part 2: Merging Digital and Green New Deals

Posted on | January 3, 2021 | No Comments

I’ve been lucky enough to ride out most of the Covid-19 epidemic here in the Republic of Korea. I miss being home in Austin, TX, but I’ve been safe and relatively free to travel and shop, even if I have to wear a mask everywhere I go. It’s a small price to pay for the relative freedom of going out to eat and exercise on my bike in the parks that are regularly available. Korea, for the most part, has avoided major lockdown measures and still led the OECD in economic growth during the pandemic.

Green New Deal

This is the second post on the Korean New Deal that was recently reiterated by President Moon at the 2021 Davos World Economic forum. In the first post on the Korean New Deal, I introduced the initial New Deal and looked at the emergence of the Green New Deal in Europe and the USA. In the third post I will go into the Korean Green New Deal in more detail.

This post discusses the recent responses by Korea to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic repercussions by examining the Digital New Deal. These posts are not policy analyses as much as they introduce some of the goals and rationale involved with the Korean New Deals. Case studies are difficult to generalize. Still, these examinations are meant to be suggestive of some strategies worth examining by other countries.

The Korean New Deal was proposed to the public by President Moon Jae-in’s administration after a convincing spring 2020 election win in the National Assembly by the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK). The Korean New Deal was designed and is being implemented with a potential new wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in mind. The notion of “sleeping with the enemy” was invoked to caution a premature return to normal activities and accelerate a transition plan to a greener, smarter, and more sustainable growth model with a major goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050.

Korea’s New Deal has two components: a Digital New Deal and a Green New Deal. President Moon explained:

    This Korean New Deal is a new national development strategy to leap from being a fast-follower to a pace-setter. In the belief that our country’s future hinges on it, we will resolutely push ahead with the Korean New Deal, which will erect two pillars – a Digital New Deal and Green New Deal – side by side atop the foundation of an inclusive nation and of values that put people first.

Left without North Korea’s natural resources by the Armistice Agreement in 1953 that split Korea at the 38th parallel, South Korea pursued an export model with a significant emphasis on science and technology. This meant improving on products that were already familiar to western society: ships, cars, semiconductors, televisions, etc. This is the “fast-follower” strategy mentioned in the quote above by President Moon. More recently, smartphones and popular music and film have added to the economic mix as well as the soft power helpful for smooth economic and political relations.

Now South Korea wants to expand its development strategy to be a “pace-setter” by leveraging its highly trained human resources with innovation. Earlier work addressed the prospects of a Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR) – new products and processes based on innovations in digital, biological, and materials science. The Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (PCFIR) was set up after Moon was elected in 2017 and started to drive consensus-building. This would mobilize economic strategies that commercialize and implement advances in artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, robotics, genetic engineering, nanotechnologies, quantum computing, and other technologies. This was ideal for a high tech society like Korea’s but as the COVID-19 crisis emerged, the New Deal signaled a more people-oriented approach and not just economic growth.

In this post, I again draw on the keynote speech by Dae Joong Lee from the Ministry of Finance and Economy. In “Linking the Korean New Deal with Innovation and Technology in the Post Covid-19 Era”, presented at the Korea Workshop on Innovation and Digital Technology in a Post-Covid-19 World held in November 2020. It was sponsored by the World Bank’s International Development Agency (IDA) and the Korean Ministry of Economy and Finance.

The Digital New Deal

Dae Joong Lee’s presentation on the Digital New Deal introduced an acronym that was new to me – “DNA.” Not the biological Deoxyribonucleic Acid in each of our cells, but “Data, Networks, and Artificial Intelligence.” One of the Digital New Deal’s first objectives is to find ways to feed data into AI. This includes disclosing data from the public sphere and introducing an incentive system to gather data from other sectors to feed AI development.

All ministries were ordered to release non-sensitive public data over the coming year to “usher in a data economy that opens the free flow of information and ideas.” Korea, like most countries, is struggling with privacy issues and needs to improve on the Personal Information Privacy Act (PIPA), which is vague and lacks punitive strength.

Networks are one of Korea’s core digital strengths and provide the foundation for many other infrastructure endeavors. Broadband speeds are some of the highest in the world at averages of 168.26 Mbps (12th) for fixed landlines and 166.70 Mbps (2nd) for mobile, after the United Arab Emirates. 5G continues to roll out across the nation for consumer and industry use.

With relatively high incomes and literacy, it is no surprise that the country has one of the highest mobile use rates in the world. A complication for Korea is that it is both an important supplier of 5G equipment as well as a chip producer for other 5G equipment manufacturers.

Reminiscent of Vice-President Gore’s E-rate in the US during the late 1990s, digitalization of education infrastructures is a high priority. Gore’s plan taxed landline telephone users to update schools with important equipment and infrastructure. The Digital New Deal will provide Wi-fi to schools, re-supply new computers for faculty, and replace old servers and network equipment in educational environments. Students in some 1,200 schools are targeted to get 240,000 tablet PCs. Online content, particularly on the 4th Industrial Revolution (FIR), will also be developed.

A more complicated development is the integration of “DNA” in smart communities and industrial applications. These include the goals of producing 108 smart cities and governance outfitted with 5G, connected management centers, cloud computing for public information, and protected by advanced cybersecurity.

The Digital New Deal includes ten new industrial complexes with computerized control centers and 12,000 smart factories with another 10,000 workshops and 100,000 stores equipped with the newest process management technologies.[1] Korea is already a leader in industrial robotics, and, recently, Hyundai acquired Boston Dynamics, an innovator in robot manipulation, mobility, and vision.

Logistically, they want to build major smart distribution systems like Amazon, with associated certification systems. These logistical centers would be shared by many SMEs and be part of the support infrastructure for over 300,000 microbusinesses that would also have access to teleconferencing centers and commercial space for offices and design studios.

As part of a new infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, they propose to develop a Cooperative Intelligent Transport (C-ITS) system to upgrade their roads. These control systems would coordinate pedestrians, bicycles, automobiles, and commercial vehicles for road safety and enhanced traffic flow. Already a major automobile manufacturer, Korea is producing “automatrix” road management models for domestic use and export. Registered cars in South Korea hit nearly 23.5 million units by the summer of 2019.[2] But these will eventually be replaced with connected cars powered by electric batteries or hydrogen.

Korea also set out to develop a public safety network for first responders such policemen, firefighters, public officials and others involved in emergency management and disaster risk reduction. Several disasters, including the Sewol ferry sinking on April 16, 2014, that killed 304 people, mainly students on a field trip, as well as train fires, were exacerbated by poor communications. Technical standards, guided by the Safe-Net Forum, have led to a new public safety (PS-LTE) network with versions for railroads (LTE-R) and maritime (LTE-M) communications.

In the next post on this topic, I will discuss the Korean Green New Deal.


[1] Just to reiterate, these are the goals of the Moon administration.
[2] Lee, E. (2019, July 15). Car ownership in Korea hits 23.44 mn by June, import share at 9.7% – Pulse by Maeil Business News Korea.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Originally from New York, he started his academic career Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand before returning to New York to teach at Marist College and spending most of his career at New York University. He has also spent time at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. When not in the Republic of Korea, he lives in Austin, Texas.


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