The Korea Herald


[Editorial] More than a glitch

Time to check all government networks following series of paralyzing breakdowns

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 28, 2023 - 05:31

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The South Korean government said Saturday the disruptions that had paralyzed its major administrative network a week earlier were caused by a faulty router port among the network equipment.

The government’s conclusion strongly suggests that a mechanical flaw -- rather than mishandling of gear by public officials involved -- is to blame for the breakdown of the state-run network services.

It is, however, hard to take the government’s explanation at face value. After all, it had already changed its position on the cause of the network disruptions twice. Shortly after the electronic administrative network for public workers, called Saeol, and the civil service portal, Government24, went down on Nov. 17, the government said there was an error in the software update process involving another piece of network equipment, the L4 switch.

As government engineers failed to fix the software, they shifted the blame to the L4 switch itself and replaced it. But delays in online operations continued, suggesting their second attempt had also failed.

Eventually, the government said it found a router port that could not transmit electricity properly, a hardware problem that dismayed public workers across the nation and disappointed the public, who expect uninterrupted online service of public networks.

Even though the government wants to wrap up the massive service breakdown, there are more questions that have to be answered. First, there was no specific software tool to detect technical errors. Second, there was no manual for responding to emergency situations and quickly identifying the cause behind glitches. Third, the network gear itself was installed in 2016 -- not outdated -- but engineers still have no clear explanation as to why it suffered a critical error. Fourth, why a backup system did not work is also critical.

In general, running a reliable backup server and contingency operation plan is an essential part of an important network service. In particular, the government’s network services that provide online certificates and other documents must be error-proof in a way that ensures continuous operation without downtime or failure -- what is called “high availability” in technical terms.

Disturbingly, four breakdowns hit the administrative service networks in just a week. Starting with Saeol and Government24, the resident registration system suffered a temporary outage on Wednesday, followed by a similar breakdown the next day at the country’s e-procurement system run by the Public Procurement Service. On Friday, service disruptions were reported at the government’s mobile ID website and app.

Even a single glitch is too many for a public service that must run without downtime. There were not only four glitches in a short period of time, but also four different causes. This suggests an additional breakdown could happen any moment.

Replacing the problematic router port alone will not prevent future failures. Experts say the recent breakdowns are a sign of multiple missteps and policy failures on the part of government officials and private companies.

While the glitches continued to cause public service interruptions, the Yoon Suk Yeol administration dared to hold an event to celebrate its digital government achievements, instead of undertaking a serious soul-searching session. The Presidential Committee on the Digital Platform Government and the Ministry of the Interior and Safety jointly held a public reporting event in Busan on Friday -- just as the fourth glitch was taking place -- praising the progress made in the push for the digital government and doling out prizes to public officials.

At the event, Interior Minister Lee Sang-min said, “We will aggressively seek an opportunity to export Korea’s digital government platform to advanced countries.” But it is highly questionable whether any advanced nation will willingly introduce Korea’s glitch-prone, low-availability digital government platform.

Experts warn the latest breakdowns of the government networks reveal misguided digital platform and operation policies. The government cannot avoid criticism for ignoring basic requirements for seamless administrative services, ranging from regular checkups and meticulous response manuals to speedy error detection and multiple backup systems.

It is time to verify the quality of the entirety of the government network systems, fix security, close operational loopholes and investigate the public officials responsible for the breakdowns, including the Interior Ministry; not the time for holding a shameless self-congratulatory event.