Open Source in South Korea

Author’s Note:
This article is about the adoption of open source by the South Korean government in a nation-wide project, not just to bring their national education system into the 21st Century, but also to help create a national computing infrastructure that is not dependent, by licensing or expertise, on foreign companies. While the story is partly about education, the larger scope is about a national strategy to move from dependence on foreign firms and licensing. The story is timely and important because it is launching now and may be the most determined effort yet by a nation to develop a homegrown software infrastructure independent of dominant commercial software vendors like Microsoft.

In Spring 2006, the South Korean government began wide deployment of the National Education Information System (NEIS), an online system that will allow schools throughout South Korea to collect and share student data on a unified technology platform. What makes the project remarkable is it will be built almost entirely on an open source model, incorporating a homegrown version of the Linux operating system and Sun Microsystem’s Solaris. In spite of the widespread dominance of Microsoft Windows throughout South Korean society, the government has chosen to pursue non-Microsoft, open source solutions in this and other government-sponsored IT projects going into the future.

The NEIS is part of a comprehensive plan to modernize the South Korean education system. Recognizing in the 1990’s that South Korean economy was becoming more dependent on an emerging knowledge-based society, the Ministry of Education committed to using information and communications technology as a crucial tool to provide better quality education. Education, in itself, serves democracy by empowering the country’s citizens. Integrating information technology with education provides greater empowerment because students more easily and efficiently communicate with teachers and with each other, as well as access greater volumes of information and ideas. An open source solution goes even further because the computer system is based on a foundation unencumbered by restrictive commercial licenses such that it may be comprehended and modified, breaking the traditional, non-democratic model of a computing environment handed down from on-high with little or no choice as to how it should run or appear.

NEIS is one part of a larger effort by the South Korean government to invest and standardize upon open source solutions, led by the Korea IT Industry Promotion Agency (KIPA). Founded during the South Korean foreign exchange crisis in 1998, KIPA is headed by the former president of the Korean subsidiary of Microsoft, Ko Hyun-jin. Under his leadership, the government-sponsored organization has made the dilution of Microsoft’s dominance of the South Korean software market a top priority in order to create greater opportunities for a domestic software industry reducing South Korean reliance upon software developed overseas. Use of open source software provides a key by eliminating the market’s dependence on software and standards controlled by foreign corporations. NEIS represents the first mega-sized implementation of an open source solution in South Korea, incorporating a customized version of the Linux operating system that KIPA helped develop.

The NEIS is principally an information system for schools to collect and manage student data (e.g., names, dates of birth, etc.) and make it available throughout South Korea’s national school system. A student’s records may be retrieved from NEIS at any school anywhere in the country. The system automates and standardizes 27 areas of administrative business among the schools, including personnel management, budget, accounting, schools' administration, health, admission affairs, and similar records. By settling on a single, open source platform, the Ministry of Education hopes to facilitate easier exchange of information between schools while opening up new possibilities for computer-based education and administration. The project is intended to benefit educators, students, and parents with children in the South Korean national school system.

South Korea’s democracy thus benefits because its national education program stands to gain efficiency and uniformity. But the benefits do not as yet extend into the classroom, limiting its impact on the individual student. Nor is the project free of its share of controversy. NEIS has generated resistance from people who believe it tracks student information too closely.

Before the NEIS, private information like student health records were kept locally at that student’s school. The NEIS greatly expands the availability of this information in what is essentially a government database. Such comprehensive data makes it easier for schools to keep records current, such as when a students move from one school to another. But the National Human Rights Commission of the Republic of South Korea is concerned that this and other private information like student transcripts would be misused or made public due to the size and availability of the system. The South Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union has resisted implementation of the NEIS as a result of these concerns, organizing protests and even hunger strikes against it. In 2003, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) announced that NEIS infringes basic human rights, and officially opposed its implementation.

Any nation-wide collection of personal information carries both benefits and risks. The Ministry’s goal of standardizing school information is certainly worthwhile, but it butts up against an unsolved problem of how to assure the public that the information will not be used improperly. The adoption of an open source technology may be a first step toward fostering public confidence because the underlying design and structure of the system may be open to public scrutiny. Because no one organization holds a restrictive license to the source code to the building blocks from which NEIS is built, the potential exists for companies to freely compete in improving the system and providing services that make it a better, more trustworthy product.

An Open Source Solution

The Ministry of Education chose a home-grown open source platform in place of commercial alternatives such as Microsoft Windows for the NEIS because (a) open source software is free of licensing expenses, (b) it tends to have fewer security flaws, and (c) as its components are free of restrictive licensing, the code may be inspected and modified by anyone, opening the possibility for local development and support.

Open source software is software for which the source code is available to the public without licensing fees. “Source code” is the essential work-product of computer programmers from which computer programs are produced. Open source requires that the human-readable source code is made publicly available, either by request or online, and may therefore be examined, compiled into working computer applications, and modified if one chooses. The catch is that one must have some skill in programming to take full advantage of this opportunity, but the potential exists today for any programmer or team of programmers to take existing open source tools and applications and construct a fully functional computing system designed precisely toward a specific objective.

The difference essentially comes down to the method with which such software components are maintained. Software must continually evolve, both to address new challenges and to fix flaws and security vulnerabilities discovered while in use. With commercial closed-source software, consumers must place their faith in the companies that own and maintain the source to update their products when problems arise.

Furthermore, commercial closed-source products are rarely tailor-made for a customer’s specific needs, but designed for a wider audience and greater market appeal. A consumer requiring features or services the company does not regularly provide has few choices beyond hoping that the company decides at some point that meeting that need is in its best interests.

This is not to say one may not hire programmers to create new software to meet a specific objective, but development and consulting companies are loathe to make their work-product public and available to potential competitors. Their work may include components drawn from other people’s code under licenses that restrict how they may be used or copied, licenses that in turn may place restrictions on the entire project. In any case, having all of one’s software development under one roof raises the risk of becoming too dependent upon the developers, leaving one high and dry when, for example, the lead developer leaves the company.

With open source software, the consumer is not just free to take the task of building and maintaining computer software on his own shoulders. Free from restrictive licensing issues, a large organization such as a government agency is limited only by the time and effort it is willing to invest to develop a software platform that precisely meets its needs. As the product starts to take shape, the organization may choose to engage the public in the development effort by publishing the code on the Internet and inviting interested programmers to test and correct it.

The fact that the source code is available to view and modify also benefits security. As bugs or vulnerabilities are discovered, an organization can immediately address them. Closed-source corporations, by contrast, are driven to dedicate more effort to generating revenue through new products instead of combing through old ones looking for problems to fix. It is also not in the best interest of closed-source software companies to make known the flaws in their products, as they might lead to costly recalls or even lawsuits. While problems in the open source world are quickly made known to the community so they may be corrected for the benefit of all, closed-source companies are better off learning about problems quietly, turning out fixes with as little public awareness as possible to avoid blame, bad publicity and loss in market-share.

Both security and customizability are key goals to a government project. Given the deep-pockets of the South Korean Ministry of Education, it is understandable that they would wish to take upon themselves the business of designing and building the National Education Information System.

But a third benefit is to the South Korean economy. By standardizing on open source, a cottage industry may take shape to provide training, development and support, an industry not dependent upon a parent company holding a monopoly on the source code and other information about the product. As the source code is freely available, people have the opportunity to form new companies expert in the system to provide support services locally to users. NEIS will be used at over 10,000 schools. Employing an open source solution insures that support for all these deployments need not rest on one commercial vendor.

Presently, Microsoft dominates the South Korean computing landscape, even more so than in the U.S. But the South Korean government, through KIPA and other initiatives, is actively seeking to promote Linux as an alternative. KIPA is advancing open source promotion through training programs. Open source solutions are at work in Gangwon University, Chuncheon City, and the Federation of South Korea[n] Information and Communication Industry.

There are efforts underway to build a South Korean open software platform, a joint program with the National Policy Institution and the private sector, in order to create new computing standards for South Korean companies to build upon. Companies participating include Samsung Electronics, HanCom LINUX and Wow LINUX. The South Korean Government is also working to establish international open source computing standards with China and Japan, so that software developed on the platform in one country would be able to function in either of the other two.

The NEIS, as the first large-scale incorporation of open source, will provide a revealing glimpse into whether South Korea’s effort to displace Microsoft will open new avenues for public empowerment or merely replace one computing standard with another. While it is highly likely that at least some South Korean companies may benefit from the greater opportunities provided by a software market unfettered by off-shore concerns, replacing one dominant computing environment with another, state-sponsored one does not guarantee that South Korean society at-large will benefit from the potential of community-supported computing.

The NEIS in Practice

With the stated goals of fostering creativity in the curricula, increasing private spending on education, raising the quality-level of educational facilities, and bringing the school system up to date with the “digital revolution,” the South Korean Ministry of Education has embarked on a plan to upgrade network infrastructure, develop multimedia content for education, increase technology and information education and training, and implement electronic administration along with appropriate legal and policy measures. The NEIS was introduced in its prototype phase in the South Korean capital of Seoul. The program has also made the following achievements:

  1. established Internet access for all 10,064 schools and 220,000 classrooms in the country
  2. provided every teacher with a PC
  3. provided one PC for every five students
  4. made available 110 kinds of textbooks in multi-media format
  5. established 15 cyber universities, offering 89 courses to an enrollment of 16,700 students
  6. created 23 life-long education centers and 203 life-long study centers for all ages

The NEIS is designed to relieve teachers of administrative burdens by managing all student and classroom records. While this is not as easily measured as counting deployment and construction projects, the effectiveness of the system might be monitored as a factor of time spent by teachers with lessons and students rather than on clerical work.

If South Korea’s NEIS is successful, it will raise the quality-level of education throughout the country to a higher standard, be it the best school in downtown Seoul or a rural grade school on the Eastern shore. The program surely benefits from the fact that South Korea is a relatively small country. Nevertheless, concern over privacy and human rights has been vocal.

The use of open source goes one step toward assuring the public that the system is not an incomprehensible bureaucratic tool, but an accepted, available and ubiquitous technology that about which any may learn. But as with any government program that intends to collect and centralize comprehensive data about its citizens, proof of its benefits and hazards will take time to manifest. As the student database grows large, it will become tempting, for example, to make it available to law enforcement to quicken investigations into crime. And surely the government will be tested should the database be infiltrated by hackers and its contents improperly made public.

In spite of these risks, the South Korean government is taking a bold step in addressing what is a national problem with what appears to be the best solution. South Korea’s use of open source in the NEIS may be the largest, most complex public computing solution implemented by a government. Its success would demonstrate to governments throughout the world that government information systems from personnel registry to traffic systems may safely be developed without having to rely completely upon a dominant software corporation like Microsoft or IBM.

But the potential of open source invites South Korea to go further. Linux and open source need not stop at the administrator’s office, but begs to enter into the classroom as well. While the KIPA and the South Korean government understandably focuses on industry and institutional applications for its open source initiative, it is with the citizens that the platform holds the most potential. South Korea, having the largest penetration of high-speed internet in the world, would benefit greatly from a viable, ubiquitous computing platform that not only provides the usefulness of a commercial OS like Microsoft Windows, but also invites the population to learn and develop new applications unfettered by restrictive licensing and copy-protection. Thus, while open source may benefit South Korea’s government by making information technology available without the burdens of licensing and vendor-entrenchment, its greatest potential rests in making the fruits of this effort available to everyone.

This effort presents a model to governments around the world demonstrating how open source might benefit education and government bureaucracy in general, although the mere adoption of open source software over proprietary solutions does not guarantee that all the benefits of the open source model will reach outside the bureaucracy to the people. Where the open source model is extended so that software projects are made available to the public, new opportunities for citizen participation in design and improvement of public projects become possible. It remains to be seen whether the South Korean government will adopt democratic and inclusive methods for developing the technology shortly being deployed nationwide in its schools.

Email:Jeremy Mereness


1. Former President Corners Microsoft South Korea

2. Listen, Microsoft, we are proclaiming the sovereign software nation!

3. South Korean government to make major Linux move?

4. South Koreans plan giant open-source project

5. Sun Microsystems South Korea selected by NEIS Schools

6. South Korean govt goes open source

7. South Korea launches 10,000-school Linux programme

8. China, Japan To Utilize Linux More Often

9. Hunger Strike against National Education Information System (NEIS)

10. What is the National Education Information System and its problems?

11. Global e-government 22 June :: South Korea rolls out open source school project

12. Microsoft international head has a tough job, convincing nations to buy more Windows

13. Microsoft Struggles in South Korea

14. South Korea chooses custom Linux for schools :: Cash, security, and local involvement cited as reasons.

15. Microsoft: Windows may be pulled in South Korea

16. Sun Document on use of Sun products in NEIS

17. South Korea Plans to Build Linux City, University

18. Mid-sized Linux Enterprises Merges

19. Smart Mobs: South Korea and Linux

20. Firms Develop 'Asian' Linux

21. South Korea pushes forward with Linux for schools