The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Embarrassing disruption

Administrative network suffered a massive system failure, revealing a critical loophole

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 20, 2023 - 05:31

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A system breakdown hit the South Korean government’s major administrative network on Friday, resulting in massive disruptions at civil services across the nation over the weekend and revealing a loophole in the network security of the country’s critical services.

The government’s electronic administrative network for public workers, called Saeol, went down Friday morning, and the civil service portal, Government24, also suffered an outage in the afternoon.

The network breakdown caused delays and inconveniences on Friday as the public was unable to access the services that issue government-approved documents and certificates in a wide range of fields, from real estate transactions and car trades to bank loans and resident registration.

The Ministry of the Interior and Safety struggled for hours to identify the cause of the breakdown and belatedly said it was related to errors with the network equipment of the National Information Resources Service. The Interior Ministry-affiliated agency, located in Daejeon, hosts servers and network equipment for Government24 and Saeol, and takes care of the government’s information system security and management.

Reflecting the gravity of the problem, President Yoon Suk Yeol, then in San Francisco to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, ordered the formation of a task force to deal with the breakdown of the government’s civil service network.

On Saturday, the Interior Ministry said it temporarily resumed operations of Government24, but disruptions related to the state administrative network continued.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo convened a meeting of related agencies in Seoul on Saturday to discuss measures for the breakdown and apologized for the service disruptions.

“I apologize for the shutdown of the government’s administrative network that caused inconvenience and confusion for many people,” Han said, before heading to the NIRS in Daejeon to check progress on the work to restore the network.

The large-scale glitch is not only serious but also embarrassing for a nation, which has long prided itself on building up and maintaining a solid broadband infrastructure and advanced digital government platform.

It is also regrettable that the government has failed to quickly identify the exact cause of the major outage and restore the critical service without delay. According to IT experts dispatched to the NIRS, a possible error from a recent system upgrade might be the reason for the system failure, but the exact cause is yet to be determined, while some media outlets raised questions about a security patch the NIRS conducted late Thursday.

The NIRS, which supposedly “spearheads the digital government platform,” is likely to take the flak for its failure to maintain a seamless service for the government’s administrative network. Even from a layperson’s viewpoint, the technical glitch that happened Friday should have been fixed quickly with the help of a backup server system or other contingency measures.

The government cannot avoid criticism either, since it has largely ignored the need for updating the outdated network that was first built in 2007. A replacement for a new system is said to be years away.

The latest glitch of the government network came after similar technical errors paralyzed the National Education Information System in June and the Korean court network in March. It is a serious problem that the country’s major systems remain vulnerable to such errors. Equally problematic is that public officials often find themselves in a state of confusion when network failures hit their systems due to the absence of detailed manuals and contingency plans.

The abrupt breakdown of the government’s network and the following confusion must be taken seriously given that the country faces constant threats of cyberattacks from neighboring countries -- especially North Korea. The potential damage from a fatal breakdown paralyzing the country’s security, military or communication networks is unfathomable.

To prevent the recurrence of grave errors and ease public anxiety, the government must strengthen network security and invest in backup servers, as well as in a rapid response and recovery system.