Korea, The Tech Nation: A Double-Edged Sword? | Deciphering South Korea - Ep 4 | CNA Documentary
South Korea is one of the most connected places on the planet. Here, nearly every household is online. Nearly every adult owns a smartphone. And nearly everything is inspired by tech, even the takeaway chicken. Mr Robert Chicken over here might seem like a gimmick, but I think it's a good example of "untact technology".
A national effort to reshape the Korean economy around a concept called "untact" is underway. It's a vision for a future society that requires little or no human contact, one that's run by apps, algorithms and automation. An ode to this not-too-distant future is encapsulated at the T.um, a museum designed to envisage our lives in 2051. Please come this way. In this contactless future, hospitals will be equipped with hyper-developed artificial intelligence, to prioritise remote care.
The AI doctor is diagnosing the patient's condition. An artificial bone has been printed by a medical 3D printer. And we will now conduct a replacement surgery.
Would you like to volunteer? Sure. Now this is the kind of tech that would make most Korean parents proud. Grabbing it and...
Can I tell my mom I've become a doctor? Years of medical school, just like... in a few minutes. Are we ready to enter a brave new world? Or has that dystopian vision already arrived? I'm Joi Lee. It's so juicy.
I'm a journalist from the US, and I'm in South Korea armed with my limited Korean... to reconnect with the motherland. In this episode, I explore how the technological revolution is changing Korean society for the good... and the bad; how people here are finding new ways to adapt and innovate with the tech. To truly understand Korea's obsession with technology, you have to look into its history.
Established as a republic in 1948, the country was an impoverished and predominantly agricultural state, with most of the industry and electrical power residing in North Korea. A devastating war with its neighbour in the early 50s led to years of slow recovery. It was the government's decision to prioritise electronics and technology in the 1980s that really turned the tide, helping the country overturn its entire economy in just one generation, transforming South Korea into one of the world's top 10 economies in just over three decades. Since then, this love of technology and electronics has grown on par with the country's economic rise, with people spending an average of nearly 4.5 hours a day on mobile devices, one of the highest in the world.
But South Korea's commitment to tech hasn't only been about economic gain. South Korea is coping with an explosion of coronavirus cases. The country's battle against the pandemic in 2020 showed the world exactly why Korea is at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Hyper-connected, technologically advanced, and digitally savvy. All these Korean characteristics kicked into overdrive when the pandemic hit. The country's contact tracing initiative was applauded all around the world for successfully flattening the curve on COVID-19 in less than a month. I'm spending the afternoon with Lee Young-wook, a contact tracer in the district of Seocho to see if I can get an insight into Korea's pioneering approach to combating COVID-19. Digital detectives like Lee Young-wook continue to work around the clock to prevent the spread of infections. Their work never stops.
I'm joining Lee Young-wook and her team as they head out to investigate and trace the movements of an infected patient. The level of surveillance here, for you, was it surprising to be on the other side and see how extensive it was? Or is it something that just feels normal? While the rest of the world fought the pandemic by locking down citizens and closing shops, here, the spread of COVID-19 was thwarted without altering the fabric of daily lives, largely due to its digital strategy and the willingness of the public to disclose their private data for the greater good. This meant contacts could be traced in as little as 10 minutes through a wide range of data such as cellular GPS, credit card transactions, drug purchase records, and CCTV footage, with an estimated 8 million cameras installed across the country. Normally, they'd be watching the CCTV footage on a screen, but in an era of smartphone technology, who needs big screens any more? Based on what your findings are, what decisions does that impact? Will this cafe have to close or will this cafe stay open? What I saw today was just a small taste of what is clearly a massive operation of contact tracing here in South Korea. And I don't think it could have been as effective or built up as quickly if this country wasn't already such a connected nation with CCTV footage and surveillance everywhere you go.
But, it does make me wonder, what happens when privacy is invaded and data is shared without consent? An unfortunate counterpoint is a darker, more destructive aspect of modern tech, where private moments are captured without permission and shared on the web. "Molka" means hidden camera and is now synonymous with the secret filming of images of a sexual nature. Unsuspecting victims can even find themselves surreptitiously filmed in public toilets. The supply and demand of such imagery is endemic here and rising since 2008. For women in Korea, the fear of having their privacy invaded in public spaces is pervasive.
And university campuses often find themselves a prime target. Sungshin Women's University has so far successfully evaded molka cameras on its premises through a determined campaign of vigilance by students like Jeon Su-min and Han Su-jin. I want to hear from them as to how this shadow of intrusion hangs over their daily lives. When you go into a bathroom, is the first question in your head, wondering if there are cameras around? Do you check? How big is this problem exactly, of illegal cameras in bathrooms and showers? I'm just trying to get a sense of how this might impact the daily life of a woman here. Of the 16,201 people arrested between 2012 and 2016 for making illegal recordings, 98% were men.
84% of the 26,000 recorded victims over that period were women. So how does one avoid being a victim? And if technology has created the problem, can it also provide the solution? I'm in South Korea to explore the huge impact of technology on Korean culture. Although tech has helped the country make significant economic advancements, it's also unleashed and propelled a darker aspect of society. Digital crime is on the rise.
With an average of nearly 7,000 cases of hidden camera, or spycam porn, reported annually since 2015, privacy in public spaces and even at home can't be taken for granted any more. A growing number of women like Kim Ji-won are letting their voices be heard against rampant voyeuristic sexual harassment. As a brand manager to a company promoting positive sexual relationships, she's been privy to a lot of private insights. Personally, how do you feel when you go into these public bathrooms and spaces, knowing that there might be a camera? Although technology hasn't created this voyeuristic impulse, it's certainly facilitated the means of recording and disseminating such illicit material.
Digital criminals can hide the tiniest of cameras in the most undetectable ways, often disguised in everyday items like pens, watches or even shoes. And once recorded, these images can travel the world quicker than you can say "www dot". I'm meeting Choi Yeon-do, a tech entrepreneur who's making it his mission to combat this molka menace. Such a pretty name. Choi Yeon-do's company makes specialised cards, which can detect even the smallest of hidden cameras.
So it comes up as white. These little cute guys are very dangerous. The Molguard cards work in conjunction with the flash from a smartphone creating infrared rays which detect light emanating from hidden cameras invisible to the naked eye. Your cover's been blown, teddy bear. In the long run, what do you think needs to be done in order to reduce or to stop all these illegal camera crimes? Choi Yeon-do is not alone in his desire to protect the public. Recognising the destructive nature of this crime, the government has assembled a dedicated task force of 8,000 people to sweep public toilets for hidden cameras at least once a month.
But with over 20,000 public restrooms in Seoul alone, it's challenging to keep up. Today, I'm joining a member of the police task force, Han Hyo-eun, as she tackles a bathroom camera sweep in the Seongbuk District. Like these little screws, these little latches... It's a good sign that there's nothing happening. How do you find the criminals? The people who install the cameras? Definitely one of the backlashes to how hyper-connected this country is, is the toxicity that has flourished in the Internet world and the subcultures that are found online where voyeurism is something that becomes a norm. Especially because it does target more vulnerable populations, like women who have to live with this constant anxiety and threat in the back of their heads, that, maybe, wherever they might go, into a bathroom, or into a shower, or into a public space, that they might be violated and that is something very terrifying to live with.
Despite the preventative efforts of the police, illegally filmed images are widespread online and once uploaded, there's a whole other battle to be fought to remove them. I'm heading to meet someone who is an expert in cybersecurity, a man who understands the dark arts of digital crime. Kim Hyun-geol is part of a growing new industry of "cyber cleaners" that remove unwanted illicit footage from the web. I'm hoping he'll tell me who is perpetrating these crimes and why. I just want to get a sense of who your clients are. Are they from a certain age group, or do you see more men versus women? Can you show me an example of what one of these videos might look like, and what you do? So you are basically hacking the hackers? Korea has got such a reputation for being a centre where spycams have become super prolific, do you think this is a problem specific and unique to Korea? It seems with greater connectivity comes greater responsibility.
But technological advancements shouldn't be shadowed by those that choose to abuse them. And not all compulsive desires to observe others are illicit. As for some Koreans, watching people eat, play games, or even talk to their pets...
is just far too compulsive to resist. I'm in South Korea to investigate how its rampant technological advancement is impacting the people and culture here. In the past, recognising it had no natural resources of its own, Korea propelled its economic advancement through a visionary investment in technology, and mobilising human labour. Now it's looking ahead to the future as technology itself has become Korea's natural resource.
I want to gain a deeper insight to Korea's sociological relationship with technology. And I'm hoping my meeting with Professor Andrew Eungi Kim will help. Korea's total GDP last year was nearly $1.6 trillion and that's the 10th highest in the world. Between 1953 and 2020, Korea's GDP jumped by more than 1,200 times.
You could name countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which have also experienced rapid economic growth, but none like Korea. The Korean government practised what is known as guided capitalism, meaning, it heavily intervened in how the economy is run. What Korea has done well was to borrow technology or technological know-how and make them better than the original copies. My parents always used to say that the thing that Korea does the best is they know how to copy and then eventually make things better. I've heard a lot about how post-colonial mindset plays a huge role in Korean society and economy. I wonder if you think that has also impacted technological drive here? If you were to choose several concepts or keywords to describe Korea, one of them is definitely anxiety, right? And that anxiety really works for us because we have this memory of the defeats and the failures of our immediate ancestors.
So we went through the Japanese colonial rule, we also had a devastating Korean war. So this anxiety is not something that's going to lessen. You could call it economic nationalism, but it's something that really makes us stay hungry and strive for more. It's perhaps this anxiety and hunger to excel that's led to Korea being voted top of Bloomberg's Most Innovative Economies for six years in a row.
Companies that may once have copied other manufacturers are now pioneers in their own right. In fact Samsung, which remains the pride of Korea, is now the second largest tech company in the world after Apple. Korea's economic growth remains digitally delivered. The big question that I'm trying to get at and trying to understand is, why do you think technology is so important to Korean identity? That comes from, I think, Koreans' propensity for what is called conspicuous consumerism, which means that you buy expensive stuff to show off that you have a lot of money. And if it ends there, it's fine.
But we also have this phenomenon called conformity consumerism, where if a friend has it, you try to do the same, even though you cannot afford it. If Samsung or Apple wants to try out something new, they'd try the Korean market first because we have this consumption pattern. So again, this is, maybe, a universal phenomenon, but it definitely happens more intensely in Korea. Another variation of this intensive consumption pattern is highlighted by the nation's growing love affair with streaming platforms like YouTube. A recent survey showed Koreans spent a total of 46 billion minutes on YouTube in just one month.
That's roughly 770 million hours or 88,000 years spent on the streaming website; yet still less time than some other countries like the UK and Thailand. I feel like everyone and their dads have their own YouTube channel here in South Korea. The video platform has become insanely popular over the last few years and not just among the new generation, but also among the old. Koreans aren't just mass consumers of content, they're prolific creators too, originating popular material that's gone viral around the world.
Whether it's the K-pop sensation or the craze of the mukbang eating shows. YouTube is a platform for people to not only showcase themselves to others, but also a voyeuristic lens where they can peer into the lives of others as well, and to be able to make their own assessments and judgements on how other people are living in Korea. The incessant desire to watch and be watched has led to the rise of specialised training schools like this YouTuber Academy, where students of all ages can learn to film, perform and edit, as a means to broadcasting their own channels online. I've arranged to meet Park Jeong-Il who founded the academy in 2019.
Previously known for launching girl bands in the entertainment industry, he now nurtures future YouTubers through his academy. I'm hoping he'll help me understand why South Koreans are so eager to share their lives online. Press coverage about top YouTubers earning over US$8,000 a month, more than triple the average Korean salary, seems to have really struck a chord.
A recent government poll showed that being an online content creator was in the top five list of careers for elementary school students, behind being a sports star, doctor or a school teacher. And given that some of the highest-paid YouTubers in the country are young kids making millions of dollars a year from their channels, it's really not surprising that everybody wants to cash in on the YouTube phenomenon, not just youngsters. Hi, kids! In fact, there's even a term, "greynaissance", which has become popular here, to describe a growing trend for seniors working deep into their golden years, many of whom are tech-savvy elders learning to become the next online sensation.
Influencer and creator. So many toys! Taking a tour of this academy with one of the producers here, Kim Kang-hwan. The diverse range of students and their channels is soon apparent. Like others here, it seems Kim, too, has a YouTube channel and feels it's transformed his life. Is this your kid? There are so many class divides here in South Korea. And I feel like part of the appeal of YouTube is that anyone can do it.
All you need is a smartphone. Technology seems to be promising Koreans a way to bridge the economic inequality, and offering hope to a lifestyle and recognition beyond traditional careers or societal structures. For some, technology even offers a way to reimagine traditional jobs.
In the last century, technology transformed South Korea from a predominantly agricultural nation into a global tech giant. Now, in the 21st century, that same technology is helping younger generations reconnect with their agrarian roots. Professionals are giving up high-powered jobs to pursue farming, well, smart farming, where software and tech are replacing sweat and toil. In 2019, more than 70,000 farmers chose to retire due mainly to old age. To fill the void and with an eye to the future, the government is offering young farmers subsidies to open a smart farming business with an allotment of 30 hectares of land and attractive agricultural loans. I'm meeting one of the many young farming entrepreneurs being championed by the government.
Ahn Hae-sung gave up a coveted job with the prestigious Hyundai Group to pursue his dream of starting a strawberry farm. And I'm curious to learn what made him take this leap of faith and just how he makes the tech tick. When you're working, are you sneaking a lot of strawberries, because I feel like I would eat this whole place? So beautiful. It's so red. Right, so you save more water. I've been waiting.
It's so juicy. Where do you see the future of smart farm heading? I think when you look at the government's investment in smart farms, it's really just one small part in a much larger umbrella of policies that the government is trying to introduce in order to push technology to the next spring here in Korea. You see the government rolling out technology in mass scales across several different industries, and not only that, but also in its education system. In its quest to be a global artificial intelligence powerhouse, Korea has announced a national AI strategy, which includes plans to introduce AI to schools at all age groups, including kindergartens by 2025, helping its future leaders become technologically fluent from a very young age. Hello, everyone.
Very nervous. I'm dropping into a class at Manwol Middle School to see how an abstract concept like AI is made tangible to young children. What about you? What do you think? What's the coolest example of AI technology that you have seen? It's impressive how far tech has come since I was in middle school, but I'm starting to appreciate that for these young students, some of these concepts are as second nature as video gaming was to my generation. There's a lot of discussion around ethics and AI. Is that part of the curriculum and do you think that's a very important part of education? I haven't been able to stop wondering that if AI ethics had been taught in schools at the advent of this technological growth, whether issues like molka crimes would still be so prevalent in Korean society? The darker and negative aspects aside... This is so cool! this country has been built on its technological prowess and this is also very much where it sees its future pioneering the Fourth Industrial Revolution and being at the forefront of all global tech developments.
Korea has been able to stand on the back of technology in order to reach higher heights. There is an intensity to how Koreans are using this technology and I feel like a lot of this is coded in their DNA. I say this as a metaphor, but I wonder if it's really only a matter of time before Koreans actually discover a way to truly encode tech into their genes. Captions: Christina Toh, Mediacorp Pte Ltd