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South Korea’s digital reputation dented by government network outage

“Glitch” responsible for failure in networks, Interior Ministry says

Nov. 19, 2023 - 18:00 By Kim Arin
Prime Minister Han Duck-soo apologizes for the failure in government online systems on Saturday. (Yonhap)

South Korea, which boasts of being a world leader in digital government strategy and services, underwent a system failure of an unprecedented scale lasting nearly two days until Saturday. The outage forced the government operate manually while civil services were paused.

The Ministry of Interior and Safety, which oversees the e-government systems, said Sunday that the operations should be able to get back to normal on Monday. The ministry added that “glitch in the network” was believed to be responsible for the malfunction.

Vice Interior Minister Ko Ki-dong told a briefing on this day at the end of the inspections held for the last two days, “all municipal government services appear to have been normalized.”

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea on Sunday called on President Yoon Suk Yeol to apologize to the people over the latest meltdown of the government’s online systems, and to remove the minister in charge -- Minister of Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min -- from his post.

“While the systems were paralyzed, the government told South Koreans to simply wait. The president must immediately apologize to the public for the incompetence of his administration and the interior minister needs to be fired immediately,” the party said in a statement.

Beginning with reforms for digitalization launched under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, South Korean government has evolved to offer paperless services to its citizens since 2017.

In the 2019 digital government index, South Korea ranked first among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member states for as a digital government, and came third for the seventh consecutive time in the United Nations’ e-government survey in 2022.

Upgrading the digitalization of government services and administration networks has been one of Yoon’s major policy agendas, with a possible plan to export the related technologies. The Democratic Party said the “fiasco” ahead of the weekend undermined the administration’s ambition to be a “top digital leader worldwide.”

Before the systems could reopen temporarily on Saturday, central and municipal government operations had to rely on pre-digitalization paperwork processes for a full day.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo issued an apology in an address Saturday, for the “inconvenience and confusion caused to South Korean people” as a result of the outage affecting the government’s online services.

“What we witnessed goes on to show the extent of the chaos that can arise from an imperfect digital system,” he said in the address. “Our authorities are at work to determine what caused it, and how we can prevent it from happening again.”

Interior Minister Lee Sang-min, who was out of the country to meet with his US counterpart, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, cut his trip short and returned to Seoul on Saturday amid the emergency. The minister set up an emergency task force over the weekend, comprising officials from other concerned ministries, to oversee recovery efforts and coordinate responses.

Most operations began again for the most part by Saturday, with the multi-ministry task force still at work to return services fully back to normal and assessing the damage.

Government 24, a platform for assisting citizen-government interactions, has resumed service Saturday morning. Since resuming service, the platform processed 240,000 citizen complaints and requests such as issuance of resident registration certificate and other documents, according to the Interior Ministry.

Internal portals used by government workers, called the Saeol system, were operating at a “satisfactory level” by Saturday afternoon, the Interior Ministry said.

South Korean authorities have not yet been able to narrow down the exact cause of the outage.

Shortly after the system breakdown became known on Friday, the National Intelligence Service said that it was looking into “various possibilities, including cyber attacks” and deploying its experts to “identify the cause of the failure and recover the system.” No updates have been made since.