Why South Korea can’t quit Internet Explorer

SEOUL – In South Korea, one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, there are few limits to what can easily be done online – unless you’re using the wrong web browser.

On Google Chrome, you cannot make business payments online as a corporate client of one of the largest foreign banks in the country. If you use Apple’s Safari, you cannot apply for artist funding through the National Culture and Arts website. And if you are a daycare owner, registering your organization on the Department of Health and Welfare website is not possible on Mozilla Firefox.

In all these cases, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, or a similar alternative, is the required browser.

When Microsoft close Internet Explorer, or IE, on June 15, the company announced that it would begin redirecting users to its new Edge browser in the coming months. The ad inspired jokes and memes commemorating the internet of yesteryear. But in South Korea, IE is not an online artifact. The old browser is still needed for a small number of critical banking and government tasks that many people cannot live without.

South Korea’s loyalty to Internet Explorer, 27 years after its introduction and now in retirement, presents a strong dose of irony: a country known for its innovative devices and blazing broadband is tied to buggy software and little sure abandoned by most of the world a long time ago.

Most South Korean websites work on all browsers, including Google Chrome, which occupies around 54% of the country’s internet usage. Internet Explorer is less than 1%, according to Statistics counter. Yet, after Microsoft’s announcement, there was a last-minute scramble among some essential sites to prepare for life after IE.

The South Korean branch of British bank Standard Chartered savvy business customers in May that they should start using the Edge browser in “IE mode” to access its “Straight2Bank” online banking platform. Various Korean government websites have told users that some services may experience disruptions if they do not switch to Edge.

In May, Naver, one of Korea’s largest Internet companies, highlighted a feature in its Whale browser that allows access to sites that require Internet Explorer. Kim Hyo, who leads Naver’s Whale team, said the company originally added the option in 2016. He thought it would no longer be needed when Microsoft shut down IE.

But as the last days approached, Mr. Kim realized that some Korean websites would not make the change in time, so he kept the feature and changed his name to “Internet Explorer Mode.” Modernizing websites that had catered to IE for decades was “a pretty big job,” he said, and some sites “just missed the deadline.”

South Korea’s reliance on Internet Explorer dates back to the 1990s, when the country became a forerunner in using the Internet for banking and shopping. To protect online transactions, the government passed a law in 1999 requiring encrypted digital certificates for any matter that previously required a signature.

Verifying a person’s identity required additional software that connected to the browser, called a plug-in. The South Korean government has authorized five companies to issue such digital certificates using a Microsoft plug-in called ActiveX. But the plug-in only worked on Internet Explorer.

At the time, using a Microsoft plug-in seemed like an obvious choice. Microsoft Windows software dominated the personal computer market in the 1990s, and Internet Explorer leveraged this position to become the dominant browser. Since major Korean websites required IE, other websites began to adapt to Microsoft’s browser, increasing its importance. By an estimateInternet Explorer held 99% market share in South Korea between 2004 and 2009.

“We were really the only game in town,” said James Kim, who led Microsoft in South Korea from 2009 to 2015. Mr. Kim, who now heads the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, said Microsoft doesn’t hadn’t tried to thwart the competition, but that a lot of things “didn’t work” without IE.

Kim Keechang, a law professor at Korea University in Seoul, said Internet Explorer’s stranglehold on South Korea was so complete in the early 2000s that most South Koreans “couldn’t name a another browser”.

When Professor Kim returned to South Korea in 2002 after teaching abroad, he found he couldn’t do anything online with his computer running Linux, a free and open-source alternative to Windows, and Firefox. Every year, he went to an Internet cafe to access a computer with IE in order to declare his taxes on a government site.

In 2007, Professor Kim filed a lawsuit against the Korea Financial Telecommunications & Clearings Institute, one of five government-approved private companies responsible for issuing digital certificates. He argued that the company, which issued around 80% of South Korean certificates, had unfairly discriminated against him by not allowing other browsers.

Within three years, Professor Kim lost the case, lost the appeal, and lost in the nation’s Supreme Court. But his court battle drew greater attention to the pitfalls of the South Korean system, especially after a 2009 cyberattack exploited ActiveX to spread malware on Korean computers.

With the advent of smartphones, an industry based on software from Apple and Google, South Korea, like much of the world, began to reduce its dependence on Microsoft. In 2010, the country issued guidelines that government websites must be compatible with three different web browsers. But changing South Korea’s internet plumbing hasn’t been easy, especially since banks and credit card companies have propped up the existing system.

As public opinion shifted, users bristled at the inconvenience of needing to use ActiveX to buy things online. Critics argued that the technology failed in its purpose because the plug-in software made users less secure.

Microsoft introduced Edge in 2015 as a replacement for Internet Explorer, and the company said it didn’t support ActiveX in the new browser. Chrome became the country’s first browser three years earlier.

In 2020, South Korea amended the 1999 law to eliminate the need for digital certificates, a move that seemed to close the book on ActiveX and Internet Explorer. That same year, Microsoft began removing IE support from some of its online services. A year later, the company announced that it planned to completely retire Internet Explorer.

While much of the world joked about the demise of Internet Explorer, a South Korean engineer marked the occasion in a darker way.

Jung Ki-young, a 39-year-old software developer, erected a tombstone for IE on the roof of his older brother’s cafe in Gyeongju, a city on the southeastern coast of South Korea about 270 km from Seoul. He paid $330 for the monument, which was engraved with the browser’s recognizable “e” logo and an inscription: “It was a good tool for downloading other browsers.”

Mr. Jung said he had his share of frustrations with Internet Explorer, but he felt the browser that introduced so many South Koreans to the web deserved a goodbye.

“Using Internet Explorer was difficult and frustrating, but it also served a good purpose,” Jung said. “I don’t feel right just pulling it back with a ‘we don’t need you anymore’ attitude.”