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Older South Koreans flock to the smartphone and learn to wield it

Everywhere she goes, whether it’s work or the corner market, Lee Kyung-ok is on the lookout to make new friends. When the magic happens, she whips out her smartphone to exchange digits.

She’s aggressive, hyper-confident in her navigation of her hipster device. She’s also 63.

Lee, her cheeks lightly smudged with rouge, is among the rapidly growing ranks of older South Korean technology users, veteran consumers who feel compelled to keep pace with younger residents of this restless society.

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While some her age might become analogue shadows of an increasingly high-tech world, the petite Seoul office worker embraces the challenge.

She and her husband text each other constantly, even from the next room at home. She knows various applications to find the nearest bus stop, subway station or hospital. She can download recipes or exchange photos with her 4-year-old grandson.

“I love texting,” she said. “Because it’s free, I can go on and on with just about any subject.”

In her fashionable blue coat and scarf, Lee is one of the advanced students in a new class being taught at a community center near downtown Seoul. Sponsored by communications provider SK Telecom, the weekly seminars are a pilot program to teach older consumers how to maneuver what for many are some mind-bending ways to let their fingers do the walking.

The company already runs similar classes at 80 locations for regular cellphones, and has taught more than 8,000 new phone users. But smartphones are one step beyond.

SK spokeswoman Irene Kim said the company began the classes after noticing how many older buyers were lining up for the phones, the latest in hand-held technology that allows users to access the Internet and use newfangled applications.

Many were a little slow at negotiating sharp corners on their new devices, like grannies rolling off the showroom floor in new Ferraris.

“We just heard stories from our sales staff about a lot of elderly people coming in and saying that they wanted a smartphone, even though they didn’t know the first thing about using it,” the twentysomething Kim said.

Lee Seung-hee, a member of SK’s corporate responsibility unit who helps operate the classes, says she knows of one 86-year-old smartphone user who sends regular texts to his sons-in-law, both in their 60s.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the smartphone class was wrapping up its 10-week session, during which college-age volunteers had worked one on one with more than a dozen seniors.

As usual, Lee Kyung-ok sat in the front row with an instructor young enough to be her granddaughter. Lee Sodam, 22, says she quickly learned to respect the drive and intellect of the older woman.

“She catches on to things so much more quickly than I could have imagined,” she said.

Nearby, the elder Lee beamed. “I’m one of the advanced students in this class,” she said unabashedly. “The others try to catch up with me.”

But like a vintage car, Lee goes slowly. She rarely, if ever, uses slang or the smiley-faced emoticons favored by most young Koreans. There’s not an “LOL” in her digital vocabulary. Like her personality, her texts are no-nonsense, even sweet.

She bought her smartphone in November 2010, curious about what the fuss was about. Her husband, a 64-year-old construction worker, quickly bought his own. “He was jealous that I was having so much fun,” she said.

In another corner of the room, 76-year-old Chul Dal-su wasn’t having much fun as he struggled to make his arthritic fingers go where he wanted them to.

“It’s really hard,” he said. Chul had owned a regular cellphone but lost it, so he graduated to the smartphone, a step that for him was like jumping from first grade to graduate school.

His 21-year-old mentor, Im Young-min, guided him patiently.

“I lived with my grandmother once and I saw that many elderly people have a passion to learn new things,” she said. “This isn’t just a technology for the young. They can use it too.”

But Im and other South Koreans know that perhaps their society is moving just a bit too fast. Lawmakers, worried about technology and online gaming addiction among the young, recently passed what they call the Shutdown Law, which bans all gamers younger than 16 from playing online games between midnight and 6 a.m.

Lee Kyung-ok isn’t worried that she’ll become addicted to her new device. But she still has a lot to learn.

Before students received their smartphone diplomas, teachers held a texting competition. The class was asked to answer questions such as how to locate the applications they could use to find historical places or hospitals.

They were challenged to send a text to the head instructor with answers to all six questions. Lee went to work, her head down, shoulders hunched, turning now and then to check the progress of her gray-haired competitors.

In the end, she was quickest on the draw, and won a four-pack of grape juice, which she proudly clutched to her chest.

Lee Sodam, the young mentor, couldn’t help but smile.

“She’s cool,” she said. And Lee Kyung-ok beamed even brighter.

john.glionna@latimes.com


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