Why South Korea Can’t Abandon Internet Explorer

SEOUL. In South Korea, one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, there are almost no restrictions on what you can comfortably do online, except when you use the wrong web browser.

In Google Chrome, you cannot make business payments online as a corporate customer of one of the country’s largest foreign banks. If you use Apple’s Safari, you will be able to apply for artist funding through the National Culture and Arts website. And if you are the owner of a childcare facility, registering your organization on the website of the Department of Health and Human Services is not possible in the Mozilla Firefox browser.

In all these cases, Microsoft Internet Explorer or a similar alternative is required.

When Microsoft close internet explorer, or IE, on June 15, the company said it would start redirecting users to the new Edge browser in the coming months. Ad inspirational jokes and memes in memory of the Internet of yesteryear. But in South Korea, IE is not some online artifact. The browser, which no longer exists, is still essential for a small number of essential banking and government tasks that many people cannot live without.

South Korea’s commitment to Internet Explorer, 27 years after its introduction and retirement, is a serious bit of irony: a country known for booming broadband and innovative devices tied to buggy and insecure software long abandoned by much of the world.

Most South Korean websites work on all browsers, including Google Chrome, which accounts for about 54 percent of the country’s internet usage. Internet Explorer accounts for less than 1 percent, according to statistics counter. And yet, after Microsoft’s last-minute announcement, there was a shuffle between some important sites to prepare for life after IE.

South Korean division of the British bank Standard Chartered warned corporate clients in May, they will need to start using the Edge browser in “IE mode” to access their “Straight2Bank” internet banking platform. Various Korean government websites have informed users that some services are likely to experience outages if they don’t migrate to Edge.

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

But as the last days approached, G. Kim realized that some Korean websites would not migrate in time, so he kept the feature and changed its name to “Internet Explorer mode. Modernizing the websites that have served IE for decades was “quite a challenge,” he said, and some sites “just didn’t meet 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 the use of encrypted digital certificates for any matter that previously required a person’s signature.

Verifying a person’s identity required additional software that plugged into 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 in Internet Explorer.

At the time, using the Microsoft plug-in seemed like the obvious choice. Microsoft Windows software dominated the personal computer market in the 1990s, and Internet Explorer took advantage of this position to become the dominant browser. Because key Korean websites required IE, other websites started using Microsoft’s browser, adding to its importance. According to one estimateInternet Explorer’s market share in Korea between 2004 and 2009 was 99 percent.

“We were really the only game in town,” said James Kim, who headed Microsoft South Korea from 2009 to 2015. Kim, who now chairs the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, said Microsoft didn’t try to thwart competition, but things “didn’t work” without IE.

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

When Mr. Kim returned to South Korea in 2002 after teaching abroad. He found himself unable to 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 an IE computer to deposit his taxes on a government site.

In 2007, Kim filed a lawsuit against the Korea Financial Telecommunications and Clearing Institute, one of five government-approved private companies tasked with issuing digital certificates. He claimed that the company that issued about 80 percent of South Korea’s certificates unfairly discriminated against him by banning other browsers.

Over a three-year period, Mr. Kim lost his case, lost his appeal, and lost in the country’s Supreme Court. But his legal battle has brought wider attention to the pitfalls of the South Korean system, especially after 2009 cyberattack used 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 lessen its dependence on Microsoft. In 2010 in the country released guidelines that government websites must be compatible with three different web browsers. But changing the structure of the Internet in South Korea was not easy, especially since banks and credit card companies supported the existing system.

As public opinion changed, users were annoyed by the inconvenience of having to use ActiveX to shop online. Critics argued that the technology didn’t achieve its purpose because the plug-in software actually made users less secure.

Microsoft introduced Edge in 2015 as a replacement for Internet Explorer, and the company has stated that it does not support ActiveX in the new browser. Chrome was the country’s top browser three years earlier.

In 2020, South Korea amended a 1999 law to remove the need for digital certificates, a move that seemed to close the book for ActiveX and Internet Explorer. In the same year, Microsoft began dropping support for IE in some of its online services. A year later, the company announced that it plans to phase out Internet Explorer entirely.

While much of the world was joking about the demise of Internet Explorer, one South Korean engineer took the event darker.

Jung Ki Yong, a 39-year-old software engineer, installed an IE tombstone on the roof of his older brother’s cafe in Gyeongju, a city on the southeast coast of Korea, about 170 miles from Seoul. He paid $330 for a monument engraved with the browser’s recognizable “e” logo and the 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 that the browser that introduced so many South Koreans to the Internet deserved a proper goodbye. “Using Internet Explorer was difficult and frustrating, but it also served a good purpose.” Jung said. “I don’t like to just turn him down with a ‘we don’t need you anymore’ attitude.”