SEOUL — In South Korea, one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries, there are few limits to what can be conveniently done online, except if you’re using the wrong web browser.
In Google Chrome, you can’t make online business payments as a corporate customer of one of the country’s largest foreign-owned banks. If you’re using Apple’s Safari, you can’t apply for artist funding through the National Culture and Arts website. And if you are a child care center owner, it is not possible to register your organization on the Ministry of Health and Welfare website in Mozilla Firefox.
In all of these cases, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, or a similar alternative, is the required browser.
When Microsoft shut down Internet Explorer, or IE, on June 15, the company said it would start redirecting users to its new Edge browser in the coming months. The ad inspired jokes and memes commemorating the internet of old. But in South Korea, IE is not an online artifact. The defunct browser is still needed for a small number of critical banking and government-related tasks that many people can’t live without.
South Korea’s allegiance to Internet Explorer, 27 years after its introduction and now on its retirement, comes with a heavy dose of irony: a country known for its brilliant broadband and innovative gadgets is tied to an insecure and hacked piece of software. errors abandoned by most of the world. Long ago.
Most South Korean websites work in all browsers, including Google Chrome, which accounts for about 54 percent of the country’s internet usage. Internet Explorer is less than 1 percent, according to Statcounter. And yet, after Microsoft’s announcement, there was a last minute scramble between some essential sites to prepare for life after IE.
The South Korean arm of British bank Standard Chartered warned corporate customers in May that they would need to start using the Edge browser in “IE mode” to access its “Straight2Bank” internet banking platform. Several Korean government websites told users that some services would likely face outages if they didn’t 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 heads Naver’s Whale team, said the company had originally added the option in 2016. He thought it would no longer be needed when Microsoft shut down IE.
But as the final days approached, Mr. Kim realized that some Korean websites would not make the switch in time, so he kept the feature and renamed it “Internet Explorer mode.” Modernizing websites that had catered to IE for decades was “a pretty big task,” he said, and some sites “just missed the deadline.”
South Korea’s reliance on Internet Explorer dates back to the 1990s, when the country pioneered the use of the Internet for banking and shopping. To protect online transactions, the government passed a law in 1999 requiring encrypted digital certificates for anything that previously required a person’s signature.
Verifying a person’s identity required additional software that connected to the browser, known as a plug-in. The South Korean government has authorized five companies to issue such digital certificates using a Microsoft plugin called ActiveX. But the plugin only worked in Internet Explorer.
At the time, using a Microsoft plugin seemed like an obvious choice. Microsoft Windows software ruled the personal computer market in the 1990s, and Internet Explorer had taken advantage of that position to become the dominant browser. Because key Korean websites required IE, other websites began catering to Microsoft’s browser, reinforcing its importance. According to one estimate, Internet Explorer had a 99 percent market share in Korea between 2004 and 2009.
“We were really the only game in town,” said James Kim, who ran Microsoft in South Korea from 2009 to 2015. Kim, who now runs the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, said Microsoft didn’t try to thwart competition, but a lot of things “didn’t work” without IE.
Kim Keechang, a law professor at Korea University in Seoul, said Internet Explorer’s dominance of South Korea was so complete in the early 2000s that most South Koreans “couldn’t name another browser.”
When Mr. 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 would go to a cyber cafe to access a computer with IE to file his taxes on a government site.
In 2007, Mr. Kim filed a lawsuit against the Korea Financial Telecommunications and Clearing Institute, one of five government-approved private companies assigned to issue digital certificates. He argued that the company, which issued about 80 percent of South Korea’s certificates, had unfairly discriminated against him by not allowing other browsers.
Over a period of three years, Mr. Kim lost the case, lost on appeal, and lost in the country’s Supreme Court. But his court battle brought more attention to South Korea’s system cheats, especially after a 2009 cyberattack that exploited ActiveX to spread malware on Korean computers.
With the advent of smartphones, an industry based on Apple and Google software, South Korea, like much of the world, began to reduce its reliance on Microsoft. In 2010, the country issued guidelines that government websites should be compatible with three different web browsers. But changing South Korea’s Internet pipes wasn’t easy, especially as banks and credit card companies kept the existing system.
As public opinion changed, users became angry at the inconvenience of having to use ActiveX to buy things online. Critics argued that the technology had failed its purpose because the plug-in software had actually 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 leading browser three years earlier.
In 2020, South Korea amended the 1999 law to remove the need for digital certificates, a move that seemed to close the book on ActiveX and Internet Explorer. That same year, Microsoft began removing support for IE from some of its online services. A year later, the company announced that it planned 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, erected a tombstone for IE on the rooftop of his older brother’s cafe in Gyeongju, a city on Korea’s southeast coast about 170 miles 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 to download other browsers.”
Mr. Jung said he had his share of frustrations with Internet Explorer, but felt the browser that had introduced so many South Koreans to the web deserved a proper goodbye. “Using Internet Explorer was difficult and frustrating, but it also served a good purpose,” said Mr. Jung. “I don’t feel good about just withdrawing it with a ‘we don’t need you anymore’ attitude.”