Lentis/Handheld Electronics in South Korean Society

88% of South Koreans own a smartphone, compared to the equivalent 72% of people in the United States.[1] The number of smartphones dwarfs the number of other handheld electronics in South Korea, such as smartwatches, tablets, and fitness trackers.[2] Additionally South Korea has the fastest average internet speed in the world, which supports its residents' smartphone usage. Nearly 100% of people have access to the internet. This leads to specific handheld device norms in South Korea.

Infrastructure DevelopersEdit

Device manufacturers and network service providers play a large role in South Korea’s handheld electronics industry. These corporations, in conjunction with the South Korean government, enable the popularity of handheld devices through economic, social, and political venues.

Economic InfluenceEdit

Large corporations in South Korea are known as "Chaebol" corporations. These are family-operated conglomerates that carry political and economic influence, often dominating entire industries in small groups. Chaebol corporations are prevalent in South Korea’s economy due to their importance in the country’s economic revival post-WWII. The revenue from Samsung, SK Group (Sunkyoung Group), and LG combined accounted for 35% of Korea’s stock index and nearly 40% of the country’s GDP in 2016. [3][4] The telecommunications sector in South Korea is relatively diverse and open to competition, with 95 internet service providers (ISPs) operating as of July 2016. [5] Nevertheless, it is dominated by three companies: Korea Telecom (42%), SK Telecom (owned by the SK Group) (25%), and LG Telecom (16%). These firms also control the country’s mobile service market, with 27%, 46%, and 19%, respectively. [6]

Social PresenceEdit

Handheld device companies are also heavily present in daily life. Samsung pervades many elements of daily life in South Korea through product placement, affiliations, and omnipresent logos.

“South Koreans can be born in a Samsung-owned medical center, grow up learning to read and write with the help of Samsung tablets and go on to attend the Samsung-affiliated Sungkyunkwan University. It doesn't end there. They may then live in a Samsung-built apartment complex, fitted out with the company's appliances and electronics. South Koreans can even end up at a Samsung funeral parlor when they die”. [7]

Varied accounts show commonality in depictions of Samsung’s overwhelming presence as described above. [8][9] Samsung and SKT are also heavily involved in the popular e-sports scene with sponsored teams like SKT T1 and Samsung Galaxy White.

Government SupportEdit

The government’s unique prioritization of development of internet and communication technology (ICT) contributes to the proliferation of handheld devices in South Korea. Beginning in the late 1980s, the South Korean government introduced a series of legislation that contributed to the existing national ICT infrastructure. The first example of this is the Framework Act on Informatization Prioritization (1987), a plan formed by the Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC) to accelerate broadband deployment on a national level. It established a fund of 294,700 million won to support “the construction and promotion of broadband Internet networks and the development of human resources and research in relation to information technology."

Successive legislation propelled informatization of government documents to encourage national adoption of new technologies. [10] South Korea invested a substantial amount of money from the government budget, enacted promotional regulations, and provided incentives to private companies to build networks. It also had a number of successful efforts to spur broadband demand and digital literacy. [11] Furthermore, South Korea’s government fostered strong relationships with private corporations, streamlining technological advancement. The Ministry of Science, ICT, and Future Planning (MSIP) partnered with 3 major telecom companies to provide free wifi hotspots in over 2,000 public spaces across the country. [12] It has also announced its plan to partner with 3 major telecom companies and local governments further the coverage to 12,000 public hotspots by 2017. [13]

Content ProvidersEdit

In South Korea, content providers intermingle more closely with each other to increase sales, build their user base, and invest in marketing.

Messaging PlatformsEdit

According to a survey conducted by the Korea Internet and Security agency, users most frequently listed KaKaoTalk, Facebook Messenger, and LINE among their top three preferred instant messaging platforms.[14] While 29.7% of users selected Facebook messenger as one of their top messaging platforms, an overwhelming 99.2% of users listed KakaoTalk in their preferred list.[14] The evidently popular messaging platform had 170 million registered users and 48 million monthly active users as of May 2017. [15]

While American platforms such as Facebook messenger have sticker packs, this feature is emphasized in South Korean messaging platforms. Both KaKaoTalk and LINE include more extensive stickers and emojis, with sticker sales accounting for 20 percent of LINE’s net sales. [16] Users can also send friends virtual gifts such as a Starbucks drink. These gifts can be combined with a detailed animated cards, allowing users to personalize their virtual gift. [17] V Live broadcasting app is a more specialized messaging platform that lets fans interact closely with celebrities. Fans can watch live behind-the-scenes broadcasts of celebrities and leave real-time comments, allowing for informal Q&A sessions. While all the popular South Korean messaging platforms are free, content developers use these user engagement techniques to boost their platforms' monetization rates. [18] Facebook messenger is still planning on how to monetize their app. [19]

Mobile CommerceEdit

South Korea has a rapidly growing mobile commerce (m-commerce) market. Starting at a valuation of 300 million USD in 2010, the market grew to 14 billion USD by 2014.[20] There are four distinguishing characteristics of the mobile commerce market: demographics, impulse purchases, entertainment, and loyalty. M-commerce is particularly popular among young South Korean women. [21] As a result, some retailers give discounts on baby gear. [21] Users also typically go through fewer pages before making their final purchases, allowing retailers to have a smaller inventory. [21] Moreover, users have higher expectations that their shopping experience will be convenient and fun. [21] M-commerce platforms are able to capitalize on this user response by creating trendy items and offering rewards points for daily use of the app. [21]

Gmarket is a leading South Korean online retailer that predicted the importance that mobile devices would have in commerce. [22] Since they released their mobile app in 2009 they have seen an annual growth of 30% in their mobile business each year. [22] It has increased user engagement by partnering with KaKaoTalk, a popular mobile messenger platform to send customers order confirmation instant messages. [22] They have placed interactive billboards around subways during holidays so customers can walk up to a sign, scan a QR code, and purchase the item on their phone. [22] Gmarket also released a series of commercials, featuring popular K-pop stars Kim Heechul and Kim Seolhyun, with quirky dancing, a catchy beat, and repetitive lyrics. [23] Such commercials allow Gmarket to use the appeal of viral videos to further boost its appeal to mobile customers.

Device UsersEdit

Internet users over the age of 60, or "silver surfers", are common in Korea. Half of adults over the age of 60 frequently use the internet, compared to just 34% in the US.[24][25] According to a Pew Research Study, 100% of people under the age of 35 in South Korea use the internet and 92% of those over the age of 35, highest of the 40 developed and developing nations surveyed. Over 80% of people between the ages of 11 to 19 have a phone, and on average they spend between 2 and 3 hours on their phone everyday.[26]


Device usage in schools is a major problem. Teachers have tried to address this problem by confiscating students' cell phones before class.[27] In response, some students began carrying multiple phones or hiding their phone from the teacher.

Schools try to use applications to control a student's phone while they are on school premises. [28] One such application, iSmartKeeper, uses geofencing to lock students' phones. However the application had mixed results, causing some schools to drop its use.[29] The application only operated on Android phones, and even Android users could bypass the system by rooting their phones. The application was prone to error, locking one student's phone even after he left school premises. The Seoul City Student Human Rights Ordinance states that students should set their own limitations instead of having them imposed by family pressure.[29] This application also raised privacy concerns due to the control it gave administrators over students.

While educators want to limit phone use at school, schools do promote specific technological integrations. "ClassUp" allows students to schedule and register for classes. In addition, this application provides a mobile platform for student discussion and facilitates teacher-student communication. In higher education, students "touch their mobiles to the electronic box by the door to mark their attendance." [30]


The pervasive usage[31] of mobile devices has led to "nomophobia", or no-mobile-phone phobia. Nomophobia is defined as the "fear of being without access to a working cell phone". [32] While people worldwide are using their phones more than ever, South Koreans ranked 6th in the world for average phone usage per day. [33]

Kim Hee-Sun, a student at Dongguk University said:

"Few days before mid-term, I went to the central library to study. However, I started to chat with my friends through Kakaotalk and could not study at all."[31]

A survey at his university found that 50% of students used their phone over 5 hours a day, and 68% admitted they were addicted to their smartphone. They reported addiction led to decreased concentration, and decreased efficiency in studying. KakaoTalk was the most used application, with Facebook and other messaging apps trailing behind.[31]


In response to growing concerns, the South Korean government has funded "treatment centers" for teenagers suffering from a smartphone addiction. These centers take away patients' mobile phones and encourage them to participate in activities without a phone. Such activities include play-therapy classes, in one such class students contemplated the results of 10,000 hours of mobile gaming versus 10,000 hours of working to achieve their dreams. [34] Since 2013, South Korea has has established many more taxpayer-funded treatment centers for children and teenagers in addition to adults. [35]

The government has taken steps to limit children's device usage, particularly through use of sponsored monitoring apps. These applications allow parents to monitor their child's app usage, time spent on devices, internet searches, and other usage metrics. The government enforced mandatory installation of Smart Sheriff on all phones belonging to users under the age of 19, lead to over 500,000 downloads by November 2015. This technology allowed parents to closely monitor and even shut down their child's phone. Much like iSmartKeeper, the application used in many schools, SmartSheriff, was Android exclusive and failed to address this issue for users with iOS devices. Other concerns with the application included concerns about its unethical invasion of privacy. These complaints, as well as security concerns and limited availability of free monitoring apps, caused the government to terminate the mandatory installation of SmartSheriff.[36]


South Korea's handheld device culture can be attributed to a variety of unique developmental and societal factors. Research into the role of infrastructure development, content provider strategies, and device user behavior helps explain the rapid adoption of handheld devices in South Korea specifically. Additional research into the country's fusion of economics and politics, responses from unorganized groups of users to device content, and diverse case studies of nomophobia will be useful as next steps for this work.


  1. http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/smartphone-ownership-and-internet-usage-continues-to-climb-in-emerging-economies/
  2. https://www.statista.com/statistics/276209/mobile-and-connected-devices-ownership-comparison-world-south-korea/
  3. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-4270076/Boiling-point-pressure-mounts-S-Koreas-chaebols.html
  4. https://asia.nikkei.com/magazine/20170518/On-the-Cover/South-Korea-s-Moon-vows-to-rev-up-jobs-and-rein-in-chaebol
  5. https://isis.kisa.or.kr/statistics/?pageId=010402#
  6. http://www.itstat.go.kr/pub/pubDetailView.it?identifier=02-008-150430-000002&pub_code=&page=1
  7. http://money.cnn.com/2017/02/17/technology/samsung-south-korea-daily-life/index.html
  8. http://www.businessinsider.com/samsung-is-everywhere-in-south-korea-2015-3?op=1/#ere-was-this-old-school-samsung-phone-too-15
  9. https://www.androidheadlines.com/2015/03/samsung-means-south-korea.html
  10. http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un-dpadm/unpan042711.pdf
  11. https://slideblast.com/download/broadband-internet-in-korea_594dfcf61723dd4c4ea71768.html
  12. http://www.wififree.kr
  13. http://www.wififree.kr/en/service/service_info_02.jsp
  14. a b https://www.emarketer.com/Article/Facebook-Ever-Take-Down-Messaging-App-KakaoTalk-South-Korea/1015930
  15. http://m.biz.chosun.com/svc/article.html?contid=2015032400470
  16. https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/062315/how-kakaotalk-makes-money.asp
  17. http://www.inaglobal.fr/en/telecommunications/article/kakaotalk-korean-messaging-app-turned-social-phenomenon
  18. https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/062315/how-kakaotalk-makes-money.asp
  19. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/facebook-needs-messenger-to-make-money-and-here-is-the-plan-2017-04-18
  20. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/learning-from-south-koreas-mobile-retailing-boom
  21. a b c d e https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/learning-from-south-koreas-mobile-retailing-boom
  22. a b c d http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20130819000818
  23. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZeCRexqvrM
  24. https://www.forbes.com/sites/elaineramirez/2017/01/31/nearly-100-of-households-in-south-korea-now-have-internet-access-thanks-to-seniors/#4f4717635572
  25. http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/smartphone-ownership-and-internet-usage-continues-to-climb-in-emerging-economies/
  26. http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/south-korea-battles-smartphone-addiction-article-1.1387062
  27. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324263404578615162292157222
  28. http://www.bloter.net/archives/185742
  29. a b https://www.theverge.com/2014/3/20/5528842/korean-schools-block-smartphones-in-class-ismartkeeper
  30. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/25/technology/25iht-mobile.html
  31. a b c http://www.dgupost.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=1269
  32. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nomophobia
  33. https://www.statista.com/chart/9539/smartphone-addiction-tightens-its-global-grip/
  34. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20151025000441
  35. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324263404578615162292157222
  36. http://www.koreatimesus.com/s-korea-pulls-plug-on-child-monitoring-app/