Even in death, Internet Explorer lives in South Korea

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

On Google Chrome, you cannot make online business payments as a corporate client of one of the largest foreign-owned banks in the country. If you use Apple’s Safari, you will not be able to apply for art funding through the National Culture and Arts website. And if you are a child care facility owner, registering your organization with the Ministry of Health and Social Care website is not possible on Mozilla Firefox browser.

In all of these cases, Microsoft Internet Explorer, or a similar alternative, is the browser in need.

When Microsoft shut down Internet Explorer, or IE, on June 15, the company said it would begin redirecting users to the newer Edge browser in the coming months. The ad inspired jokes and memes to commemorate the internet of yesteryear. But in South Korea, IE is not an online artifact. The defunct browser is still needed for a small number of important banking and government tasks that not many people can live without.

South Korea’s loyalty to Internet Explorer, 27 years after its introduction and now in retirement, represents a heavy dose of irony: a country known for its broadband and innovative hardware tied to the buggy and insecure program that most of the world abandoned long before.

Most websites in South Korea run on every browser, including Google Chrome, which takes up about 54 percent of the country’s internet use. Internet Explorer is less than 1 percent lower, according to Statcounter. However, after the announcement from Microsoft, there was a last-minute scramble among some of the key sites to get ready for life after IE.

The South Korean arm of Britain’s Standard Chartered Bank warned corporate customers in May that they would need to start using the Edge browser in “IE mode” to access its online banking platform Straight2Bank. Several Korean government websites have told users that some services are likely to experience disruptions if they don’t switch to Edge.

In May, Naver, one of the largest Internet companies in Korea, highlighted the Whale Browser feature that allows access to sites that require Internet Explorer. Kim Hyo, who heads Naver’s Whale team, said the company originally added the option in 2016. He thought it wouldn’t be needed when Microsoft shuts down IE.

But as the final days approached, Mr. Kim realized that some Korean sites would not make the switch in time, so he kept the feature and changed its name to “Internet Explorer Mode”. He said that updating websites that have been catering to IE for decades is a “too big job”, and some sites “just missed the deadline”.

South Korea’s reliance on Internet Explorer dates back to the 1990s, when the country became a pioneer in using the Internet for banking and shopping. In order 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 requires an additional program connected to the browser, known as a plug-in. The South Korean government has allowed five companies to issue such digital certificates using a Microsoft plug-in called ActiveX. But the plugin only worked on Internet Explorer.

At the time, using a Microsoft plug-in seemed like an obvious option. Microsoft Windows software ruled the PC market in the 1990s, and Internet Explorer took advantage of this position to become the dominant browser. Since the main Korean websites require IE, other websites have begun to cater to Microsoft’s browser, thus enhancing its importance. According to one estimate, Internet Explorer held 99 percent of the 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 didn’t try to thwart the competition, but a lot of things “didn’t work” without IE.

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

When Professor Kim returned to South Korea in 2002 after teaching abroad, he discovered he couldn’t do anything online with his computer running Linux, a free and open source alternative to Windows and Firefox. Every year he would go to an internet café to access a computer with IE in order to file his taxes on a government website.

In 2007, Professor Kim sued the Korea Institute of Financial Communications and Clearance, one of five government-approved private companies dedicated to issuing digital certificates. He said the company, which issued about 80 percent of South Korea’s certificates, unfairly discriminated against him by not allowing other browsers.

Over the course of three years, Professor Kim lost the case, lost the appeal, and lost to the country’s Supreme Court. But his court battle drew wider attention to the flaws of the South Korean system, especially after a 2009 cyber attack that exploited ActiveX to spread malware on Korean computers.

With the advent of smartphones, an industry built on software from Apple and Google, South Korea, like much of the world, has begun to reduce its dependence on Microsoft. In 2010, the state issued guidelines that government websites must be compatible with three different web browsers. But changing the internet in South Korea hasn’t been easy — especially since banks and credit card companies have been sticking with the current system.

As public opinion shifted, users worried about the inconvenience of having to use ActiveX to buy things online. Critics argued that the technology failed to achieve its purpose because the additional software made users less secure.

Microsoft introduced Edge in 2015 as an alternative to Internet Explorer, and the company said it does not support ActiveX in the new browser. Chrome became the best browser in the country three years ago.

In 2020, South Korea amended the 1999 law to remove the need for digital certificates, a move that appeared to shut the book on ActiveX and Internet Explorer. That same year, Microsoft began removing support for IE in some of its online services. A year later, the company announced that it plans to retire Internet Explorer entirely.

While much of the world was joking about the demise of Internet Explorer, a South Korean engineer marked the occasion in a more somber way.

Jung Ki-young, a 39-year-old software developer, placed IE’s tombstone on the roof of his older brother’s cafe in Gyeongju, a city on the southeast coast of South Korea about 170 miles from Seoul. He paid $330 for the memorial, which was engraved with the browser’s distinctive “e” logo and the inscription: “It was a good tool for downloading other browsers.”

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

“Using Internet Explorer has been difficult and frustrating, but it also serves a good purpose,” Mr. Jung said. “I don’t feel good about retiring with the ‘we don’t need you anymore’ attitude.”

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