COVID-19: Accelerating Digital Inequalities in South Korea

June 14, 2021

COVID-19 has altered South Koreans’ daily lives in myriad ways. For example, schools in Seoul have been virtual since December 7th, 2020 [1]; online purchases have increased by 30% since 2019 and service industries have made plans to significantly reduce their workforce.[2]
South Korea has managed this rapid transition to a contactless society (Untact society in Korean English) with ease, thanks to a robust digital infrastructure, but the digitization of society has introduced new challenges. As many sectors move online, an individual’s technological proficiency determines their access to society. Even though digital access is near universal—over 90% of South Korea’s population uses the internet—digital inequality remains. Levels of technological proficiency are not uniform across demographics.[3]

The Digital Divide vs. Digital Inequality

In the literature on digital inequality, this issue is often portrayed as a binary. While the digital divide is a distinction between those who have access to informationand communication technologies (ICTs) and those who do not, the actual situation is often much more nuanced. The concept of digital inequality, which considers the efects of socioeconomic disparities among those who already have access to ICTs, is much more applicable to South Korea today.[4] Digital inequality includes considerations of the quality of access, variances in skill, social support, and patterns of use, all of which play a role even in technologically affluent societies like South Korea. Though more than 95% of the population has access to the internet,[5] a recent survey showed that 70.8% of respondents think the information gap is a serious issue in Korean society, and 85.5% think that digitally marginalized groups will be hurt by the emerging contactless society.[6]
While digital inequality is caused by existing social disparities; it also exacerbates them. Digital inequality can result from disparities in gender, class, and ethnicity, and in turn can restrict opportunities for social mobility, further entrenching disparities along these demographic lines.[7]

Women in Crisis

The digital inequality between men and women in South Korea is determined primarily by existing differences in ICT use in work and daily life.[8] While men are more represented in sectors that involve regular use of ICTs, women are more represented in sectors which depend on these technologies much less,[9] like the service industry and education. As such, women have comparatively less experience working with ICTs. Additionally, since these industries depend on in person interactions, which have been limited since the outbreak of Covid-19, women are facing an employment crisis.[10] The gender gap in employment has risen by more than 19% since the outbreak of the pandemic, and female employment has decreased by a record 2.4% since last year.[11]
Women’s comparatively lower experience with ICTs has compounded this employment crisis, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to finding new work in South Korea’s increasingly digital economy.

Learning Gaps Widen

Digital inequality also compounds existing socioeconomic disparities, resulting in a widened education gap between wealthy and less well-off children.[12] While wealthy parents tend to limit their children’s internet activity to educational use, children from low-income families are less monitored, meaning they tend to use the internet more for entertainment than educational purposes [13] and may use it excessively, [14] which can hamper their academic achievement.[15] The impact of this difference will likely be amplified during the pandemic, when children are more dependent on the internet and are away from teacher supervision. A survey by KERIS (Korean Education and Research Information Service) found that while only 15% of students from high-income families are left alone at home, the percentage is nearly double for students from low-income families.[16] The South Korean government has made attempts to address the challenge of online schooling by lending electronics to students,[17] but this only addresses the digital divide, not digital inequality. The Chosun Ilbo, a Korea newspaper, highlighted that online classes are less equal than in-person classes. Now, academic success depends on a student’s digital circumstances and their ability to bridge the gaps with additional support, such as private tutoring.[18]
Multicultural families may be especially affected by the shift to online learning. Around 33% of multicultural families are lower-income, compared to about 23% of monocultural families. Additionally, multicultural adolescents tend to live less in urban areas compared to others,[19] which could impact their access to ICTs. This suggests that children from multicultural families are more likely to be impacted by both digital inequality and the digital divide.

Leave No One Behind in the New Digital Era

It is imperative that the government respond to digital inequality with targeted action.[20] With respect to gender disparities, the government should commission a systematic analysis of the digital disparities between genders and incentivize women’s learning and employment in the digital sector. It is commendable that the South Korean government has already offered women temporary public employment in response to the pandemic, but it is imperative that measures to support women’s employment in the long term be implemented as well. Vocational training in ICT could be one such option.
Childcare and technical support for low-income families must also be improved. The Ministry of Education’s existing support only addresses the digital divide, leaving children from lower-income families and multicultural families to overcome difficulties alone.[21] Since schools have reached their limit with the challenge of digital learning, they cannot be depended on to provide this support. Instead, community centers should offer digital assistance and guidance to students and their families. These centers also have the potential to serve as childcare facilities for children who would otherwise be unsupervised. These services would not only assist marginalized South Koreans in building digital literacy, but also enable the country to avoid the future social costs of digital inequality.

Photo by Ori Song on Unsplash



[1] Sarah Kim, “Covid-19 Cases Pass 600 as Seoul Hits a Record High” Korea JoongAng Daily, December 4, 2020, accessed December 5, 2020,

[2] Eunim Cho, “Online Shopping after Coronavirus Records Growth by 30% , 58% of Service Providers “Reduce Employment” Chosun Biz, September 25, 2020, accessed December 5, 2020,

[3] Gangjin Lee, “Better visit than unfamiliar contactless services, Risk of infection driven by ‘information inequality’ [The Untact Era, the Elderly Excluded]” Segye Ilbo, October 3, 2020, accessed January 27, 2021,

[4] Emmanouil Stiakakis, Pavlos Kariotellis, and Maria Vlachopoulou, “From the digital divide to digital inequality: A secondary research in the European Union. In Sideridis A, Patrikakis CZ, editors. Next Generation Society: Technological and Legal Issues. Recited selected papers of the 3rd International Conference on e-Democracy. (Berlin: Springer-Verlag; 2009), p.43-54

[5] Yasmin Waldeck, “Internet Usage in South Korea – Statistics & Facts” Statistita, November 27, 2020, accessed December 05, 2020,

[6] “2020 Survey on Information Gap and Information Alienation in Modern Society”, Embrain, 2020 accessed December 5, 2020,

[7] Laura Robinson, Shelia R. Cotten, Hiroshi Ono, Anabel Quan-Haase, Gustavo Mesch, Wenhong Chen, Jeremy Schulz, Timothy M. Hale & Michael J. Stern. “Digital inequalities and why they matter” Information, Communication & Society 18 no.5 (2015): 569-582
[8] Hiroshi Ono & Madeline Zavodny. “Digital inequality: A five country comparison using microdata”. Social Science Research 36 No.3 (2007): 1135–1155

[ 9] Konstantina Davaki, The underlying causes of the digital gender gap and possible solutions for enhanced digital inclusion of women and girls (Brussels: Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights And Constitutional Affairs, 2018), accessed December 6, 2020, STUD/2018/604940/IPOL_STU(2018)604940_EN.pdf

[10] Hyunbo Shin. “Corona was more severe for women… Three times the decline in employed persons [Shin Hyunbo’s Deep Data]” The Korea Economic Daily, October 18, 2020, accessed December 5, 2020,

[11] ibid.

[12] Laura Robinson, Shelia R. Cotten, Hiroshi Ono, Anabel Quan-Haase, Gustavo Mesch, Wenhong Chen, Jeremy Schulz, Timothy M. Hale & Michael J. Stern. “Digital inequalities and why they matter” Information, Communication & Society 18 no.5 (2015): 569-582

[13] Jae Ki Jeong, “Internet, Educational Aspiration, and Family’s Social-Economic Status”. Survey Research 12 no.3 (2011):123-142.

[14] Jihoon Kim, “The Risk of Students’ Digital Accidiction, Geumcheon-gu is higher than Gangnam-gu”, Hankyore. January 29 2020, accessed January 3 2021,

[15] Mesch, Gustavo, Rita Mano, and Judith Tsamir. “Minority status and health information search: A test of the social diversification hypothesis.” Social Science & Medicine 75, no. 5 (2012): 854-858.

[16] Sanggu Lee, “Corona 19 reveals the uncomfortable reality of education inequality” October 5, 2020, accessed December 6, 2020,

[17] Jiwon Kim, “Ministry of Education Secures Quantity of Equipment for Online Education “Free Rental for Low-Income Families”” UPI News. April 3 2020, accessed December 5 2020,

[18] Young Bae, “[Young Bae’s Big Data World] Teachers, Students, and Parents… Concerns about the Widening Coronavirus Education Gap” Chosun Ilbo, November 4, 2020, accessed December 6 2020,

[19] Yangmi Lim. and Su-Jung Nam, “Time spent on the Internet by multicultural adolescents in Korea”, Asia Pacific Journal of Education 37 no.1 (2017):55-68.

[20] Yisoo Kang, “[Issue Brief] The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Digital Gender Divide” Gender Review. 58 (2020): 43-51.

[21] Korea Ministry of Education, The Plan to Strengthen the Educational Safety Net for All Students, (Seoul: Korea Ministry of Education, 2020), 1-39 accessed December 6, 2020,

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Jeongnam Hwang

Jeongnam Hwang is a master’s degree student at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (Santiago) and Yonsei University (Seoul), where he majors in Political Science and International Relations. His research interests include foreign policy analysis, international organizations, and political process as it relates to Latin America and Northeast Asia.