Special Reports

Last updated: 5 february, 2010 - 13:54 GMT

On/Off: South Korea

The BBC puts a remote click Nigerian community online, while families in South Korea struggle without the net.

Two families in the most connected country in the world - South Korea - have agreed to go without the internet for a week.

The BBC's John Sudworth reports on how the experiment affected their lives.

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Kim family

The Kim family have agreed to go without the internet for a week. How will they be affected?

click 'I think everybody should spend a week without the internet'- Mrs Youm Jung-A reflects on a week spent offline.



After a week of web-less living, our two volunteer families are back online.

Another visit from Korea Telecom's Mr Song is all it took, and with the return of the internet modems to their rightful places, the homes were rewired to the digital super-highway.

Sighs of relief all round.

Both families spoke of a major sense of inconvenience trying to navigate the complexity of modern-day Korea without it.

After just seven days, no surprise, of course, that their world didn't grind to a halt.

But our little experiment has shown how the internet has become an integral part of so many aspects of daily life here; leisure, education, transport, banking, shopping and socialising.

Yang family reading

The Yang family have rediscovered reading from books - but still want their computers back

For the Kims and the Yangs, like many other South Korean families, it takes up a large proportion of their waking hours.

Mr Kim hopes that the experience will help his children to "become more wise" in the amount of time they spend at the computer keyboard.

Mr Yang says that being cut off has allowed him to "rediscover lost time."

Would any of them recommend the experience to their friends?

"Definitely," Kim Sung-jun, Mr Kim’s eldest son, replies.

"They need to know how suffocating it can feel living without it."

Mr Yang's wife, Youm Jung-a, believes that although now happily reconnected she will change the way she uses the internet in the future.

"After finishing my morning chores I spend between two and three hours online," she tells me.

"That's time spent alone. But during this past week I've even had the time to drink tea with neighbours, so I'm going to regulate time spent online from now on."

So both families are in agreement.

For them, the experiment has highlighted how vital a tool the internet is, but also how it has come to replace other aspects of family life.

Would they give it up again?

"It would be the same as asking if you could cut off my electricity for a week," Cho Hye-sook laughs.

"Lose the internet for another seven days? It's a real no-thank-you I'm afraid. I don't want to go through this again."


Our brave internet-deprived families struggle on through the week.

It's Thursday - only two more days to go - and Youm Jung-a has been forced to venture out into the bitterly cold February weather for a shopping trip.

"Most of my shopping is usually done online," she tells me as she pushes a trolley around her local Good Morning Mart.

"It's convenient because I can easily compare prices and the goods are delivered directly to my doorstep."

Mrs Youm in the supermarket

Mrs Youm braves the cold to shop at the local supermarket

She's not alone in that view.

The total size of the South Korean e-commerce market reached more than $600 billion US dollars in 2008.

This is, in no small part, due to the role of the government, investing in digital infrastructure and framing policies to regulate competition and protect consumers.

And the state itself has turned into a kind of online shop, offering a wide range of services over the internet, including tax and benefits payments.

But there are continued signs that, for our two families, living without the internet has not been all doom and gloom.

"It's made me realise just how much time I spend in front of the computer," Mrs Youm says.

"This week I've had more time to play with the kids and chat to neighbours. In future I might try to limit the hours I spend online - there are so many other things to do."


Here's a question. Why is South Korea the most wired country on the planet?

And here's where to look for the answer.

A coffee table in a church community centre in central Seoul.

Around it are seated seven Korean mums, here to discuss a common concern, their children's education. Normally they'd be doing a lot of this kind of networking in the virtual world.

But today they can't, as the moderator of their mums' internet forum, Cho Hye-sook, is banned from using the web for a week. By the BBC.

"It's been so inconvenient," she tells me. "Normally it's so easy to arrange a meeting, I'd just post a notice on our internet forum, but this time I've had to telephone everyone individually."

Belonging to a group, if you'll forgive the amateur anthropology, is a big thing in Korea.

Korean people with mugs

Koreans love getting together - and the internet is now crucial to doing so

Koreans belong to all sorts of "clubs" that they form throughout their lifetimes.

It's not uncommon for adults to remain in regular contact with their high school, or university alumni.

Those carrying out national military service remain part of an in-group long after they stopped being forced to shiver together somewhere along the border with North Korea.

One explanation, perhaps, is the strong Confucian ideal, that means everyone needs to know his or her place in a bigger hierarchy.

Koreans just feel comfortable in a group.

What all this points to is that the internet was made for Korea.

As we all now know, it offers a perfectly efficient way to stay in touch with a group.

In fact, social networking sites were invented here in Korea, predating the now more globally famous western versions.

There are of course other reasons why the internet has taken such a hold on this society - government encouragement and corporate investment for example.

But it seems hard to argue with the fact that the internet has been pulled, rather than pushed, into being here.

A result of massive popular demand.

With it though comes another worry, that of dependence on this cyber-interaction.

Much has been written about the growing problem of internet addiction in Korea.

It's a worry very much on the minds of the school mums, but one they feel they can do little about.

"It's gone beyond being able to control it," one tells me.

"The internet is such a part of daily life that when the kids come home and they sit down to study, the computer goes on. They use it as a constant reference for problem solving by consulting friends online."


Sunrin Internet High School is a sign of the times in South Korea.

Alongside traditional subjects, the 900 pupils, aged 17 to 19, study a range of technology related courses; software development, internet security, and web design to name just a few.

One of those pupils is Seung-yeon, the youngest member of the Kim family taking part in our experiment.

He is a good example of the kind of learning on offer here, having won prizes for his programming skills and travelled to the US to take part in international computing competitions - all at the ripe old age of 16.

But being deprived of the internet for a week hasn't, so far, stopped him clocking up hours of daily keyboard time.

Pupils at Sunrin Internet High School

Sunrin's pupils are hoped to be the leaders of the internet revolution

"There's plenty of stuff I can do - software development and research and stuff - even without the web", he tells me.

The school principle, Hwang Ho-kyoo, believes he's training the future leaders of a revolution.

"The IT industry and the internet are a force that will transform our society, a pulling factor that is joining distant parts of the globe, and transforming education, commerce and industry," he says.

Revolution or not, South Korea is hooked up to the internet like no other place on the planet.

The country has the highest average internet connection speed in the world, just short of 15 Mbps.

That's almost double the broadband speed of its nearest rival, Japan.

And a whopping 16 percent of online users here are surfing super-fast, with speeds of 25 Mbps or above.

So South Korea offers a glimpse of a future that's being trialled here first.

For example, in a recent survey 68 percent of South Koreans said they got their news from the internet, compared with just 32 percent who still read newspapers.

Now, after two days living without it, the Yangs, our other volunteer family, are a good example of how dependent this society has become on a broadband connection to the outside world.

"It's very inconvenient not to have it there," Youm Jung-a, tells the BBC.

"I regularly feel the need to check the news online so it's like I don't know what's going on without it."

But just like as in the Kim household yesterday, there are signs that the absence of the internet is leaving room for other, forgotten pursuits to blossom

"The children are reading books more," Ms Youm says.

"And they can't play internet games, so they're playing board games instead."


The experiment is under way.

Shortly after lunch on Sunday our brave volunteers received a knock on the door from the very nice Mr Song - an engineer from Korea Telecom, the internet service provider.

A few minutes later the deed was done and all lifelines to the online world had been severed.

Mr Song left carrying the two computer modems, one from each household, tucked under his arm. A cheery wave, a promise to return on Saturday when the ordeal is due to end, and he was gone.

For the next seven days the two homes will be internet-free zones.

So let me introduce our two families.

The Yangs

The Yangs are making a big sacrifice by losing their net access

Firstly the Kims, whose photo you've already seen. Mr Kim's a bank manager. He's not such a heavy internet user at home, but the rest of his family are really going to miss it.

His wife, Cho Hye-sook, logs on regularly. She runs an online forum for other school mums, posting messages, exchanging information and organising meetings in the real world. And she uses the internet to read the news and to shop.

19-year old Kim Sung-jun spends up to six hours a day online, playing interactive games. In fact, it's not uncommon for him to stay up all night. He admits that being disconnected will be a big shock, and he's unsure what he'll do with his time instead.

His younger brother, Kim Seung-yeon, also spends a large part of his life logged on, at least five hours on a normal day.

A highly talented computer programmer, he attends a special internet-school in Seoul. Alongside the normal range of subjects, the pupils are taught computer technology. We'll be visiting his school this week, so more about that later.

Next, our second family, a few stairways along in the same apartment block: The Yangs.

Like Mr Kim, Mr Yang doesn't think he'll be too affected by the cut-off, but his wife, Youm Jung-a, almost certainly will be. For this family going without the internet for a week is a big sacrifice. They receive most of their television channels through a web-based TV service, so for Yang Young-sik and Yang Hyo-sik, aged 10 and 9, it's going to be a tough week.

So, 24 hours after disconnection, and how are they faring?

Life is different already it seems, particularly in the Kim household. "It was a big surprise for me this morning," Mrs Cho told the BBC.

"Sung-jun was already up, dressed and ready to go and visit a friend. Normally he'd be in bed after playing internet games all night. It's been a long time since I saw him like that in the morning."


It was never going to be easy, asking South Koreans to sign up, turn off and plug out.

We were searching for volunteers who would agree to disconnect themselves from the internet for one whole week. In other words we needed to find members of this hyper-connected country who were willing to spend seven long days in off-line solitude, while the rest of the online world roared on without them.

South Korea is often called the most wired place on the planet. Ninety-five percent of households have a broadband connection - and here, that's likely to mean very broad indeed.

A recent study shows that this country has the fastest internet speeds in the world by far.

And there can be little doubt that the internet is changing the way that its citizens live their lives - the way they consume information, they way they shop, the way they interact with government, and they way they learn.

John Sudworth with the Lee family

Persuading a family to take part in the experiment was no easy task

We wanted to explore the nature and extent of this change.

So, we thought, one way to do this would be to ask people to cut the umbilical cord for a few days and try to live without a modem and the few feet of computer cable connecting them to the outside world.

The experience would help us answer a few questions. Has the internet really become such an essential part of modern living? And what is it like living without it, in a place where everyone else is highly wired?

But in terms of finding those volunteers, easy it was not. We targeted one particular Seoul tower-block, the Kukdong Riverside Apartments in central Seoul - more than one hundred high-rise flats providing small but comfortable homes of the kind that millions of ordinary South Koreans will be familiar with.

For many of those we asked, a world without the web simply wasn't conceivable.

School children are now asked to file their homework assignments online, so parents were naturally reluctant to unplug them.

Other people said they ran their own internet businesses, or worked from home, or simply couldn't face life without the habit that web-browsing has become, with news, views and social networks all within easy-reach.

But after a week of knocking on doors, a poster campaign, a community meeting, and simple, plain convincing and cajoling, we finally found two families willing to take part.

We'll be switching them off on Sunday - from then on, their homes will become internet free zones for the next seven days.

You can meet the families, and follow their experiences here, and we hope, its going to make interesting viewing.

SuperPower: Exploring The Internet

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