What's With South Korea's Fuss About the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

What's With South Korea's Fuss About the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Seohoi Stephanie Park
Seohoi Stephanie Park

The so-called  Fourth Industrial Revolution is rapidly emerging as South Korea’s latest fashionable concept. With the country recently labeled “2017’s most innovative country” by Bloomberg, the government appears to be trying its best to live up to expectations — by issuing certificates.

On Mar. 28, the Ministry of Employment and Labor decided to adopt a state-issued license program in order to cultivate professional human resources. The government aims to keep up with the rapid pace of industrial transformation worldwide, in fields ranging from 3D printing to robotics, bio-industry and software development — but what ties all of these together?

The term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” was first introduced in January 2016 at the World Economic Forum (also known as the Davos Meeting). It was coined to denote the synthesis of cyber- and physical systems – a phenomenon already familiar to us in guises such as artificial intelligence, robotics, self-driving cars and drones.

But since Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF, decided to officially give a name to this contemporary phenomenon, it has mushroomed into one of South Korea’s loudest buzzwords. Everyone’s talking about it — presidential candidates, lawmakers, and even hagwons (private cram schools).

“Jeju local government, set to work on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

“Gyeonggi Province supports job-experience for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”


“Ahn Cheol-soo is the only presidential candidate fully prepared for the future to lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution!”

Professor Jang Jin-ho of Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology told Korea Exposé that the government’s new state-issued license plan needs closer assessment. “It’ll become problematic if the private education starts taking excessive advantage over this law,” he said. “Short-sighted policies fail to induce job creation.” 

Fourth Industrial Revolution
Not surprisingly, the private education business is already excited about the new trend. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution calls for coding education,” one college-exam consulting business claims. (Source: Wiseman)

Meanwhile, the frenzy over 4IR continues. 

Fourth Industrial Revolution
Blue indicates the number of English-language Google searches for “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” while red indicates the Korean equivalent: “sacha saneop hyeongmyeong.” The surge in blue coincides with the 2016 World Economic Forum; the equivalent Korean term’s popularity has been on the rise ever since, while elsewhere it remains stagnant. (Source: Google Trends)

“In South Korea, the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is regarded as a magic formula to solve all problems,” said Dennis Hong, professor of mechanical engineering at UCLA in an interview with South Korea’s Electronic Times newspaper. “[But] in Silicon Valley, the term is not even used. In South Korea, decision-makers are getting bound by the framework of the term itself and making wonky policies, or heading in prescriptive directions that lack creativity, such as teaching coding through top-down methods.”

With many presidential candidates making noises about the Fourth Industrial Revolution as they prepare to release their final manifestos, eyes now turn to how this much touted concept will morph into policies under the Blue House’s new occupant after the presidential elections in May. 


Cover Image: Screenshot from the show Good Insight by broadcaster KBS, on an episode called, “The type of men in demand for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” (Source: Changemarketer)

Seohoi Stephanie Park wrote this radar report. 

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