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Commentary: Three struggles South Korea faces in arresting COVID-19 outbreak

The way South Korea has been handling the COVID-19 outbreak will have major political ramifications, says Korea expert Robert E Kelly.

Commentary: Three struggles South Korea faces in arresting COVID-19 outbreak

South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks to medical workers as he visits Daegu Medical Center, Feb 25, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Yonhap)

BUSAN: South Korea now has the second worst coronavirus outbreak in the world, surpassed only by China. More than 1,100 people are infected, and seven have died.

Unsurprisingly the political fallout is widening. The media coverage is getting sensational. Everyone has watched too many movies, and even South Korean TV is getting in on the action.

On Feb 25, the government designated the city of Daegu and its neighbouring North Gyeongsang province as “special care zones” under “maximum containment”. It is not clear just how severe movement restrictions are – specifically, will people be allowed to exit these hot zones?

The greater Daegu area accounts for around 75 per cent of South Korean coronavirus cases.

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I remain optimistic that this will not explode into an epidemic as we are seeing in China. South Korea has a far better medical system than China (or North Korea).

And the reason we have so much good information about coronavirus in South Korea is its open press.

The real Korean issue, in my opinion, is if coronavirus spreads to the North. The health care system there is primitive and minimal. Any serious coronavirus cluster in North Korea might well spiral into a genuine plague.

And one can only imagine how the state there will respond – throwing those infected into camps and letting them struggle on their own would be my guess.

Workers in protective suits spray disinfectant in North Korea AFP/STR

Explore: Real-time interactive map of all the confirmed cases reported around the world


South Korea’s National Assembly elections occur on Apr 15. It is hardly a stretch to suggest that coronavirus will hurt the ruling, left-liberal Democratic Party.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is already moderately unpopular. He has staked his presidency on the unrelated issue of outreach to North Korea.

Moon has pursued a vigorous détente with Pyongyang, and he helped midwife the meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. Moon himself has met Kim, too.

Unfortunately, those meetings have not created a breakthrough. The basic standoff – the North wants to keep its nuclear weapons, while the US will not roll back sanctions unless it gives them up – is still in place.

READ: Commentary: As Iran-US drama plays out, North Korea leader Kim Jong Un takes notes

READ: Commentary: Purges and other unverified reports on North Korea

Worse, Moon’s government has been in regular tension with America over the North, and South Korean contributions to US defence costs here. The alliance is popular here, and consequently Moon has taken much criticism in the conservative press.

So Moon’s Democrats were already facing a tough election. If coronavirus keeps going for a few more weeks, it will likely throw the elections to the right.


To my mind, the core issue behind the spread in South Korea is the country’s basic political liberalism. South Korea is a free society. People enjoy freedom of movement, association, and religion.

Should the South Korean state simply strip people of these freedoms in the circumstances of an epidemic? Indeed, can the South Korea state, constitutionally, even do that? (No one really knows.)

Do we really want to lock people up for weeks, just because they have a headache or a temperature? What constitutes a severe enough emergency to warrant such measures?

A woman wearing a mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus shops at a traditional market in Seoul, South Korea, February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Heo Ran

Recall that South Korea has 53 million people. Of that, 1,100 are infected, and only seven have died. That seems like a low bar to start declaring emergency civil liberties restrictions akin to wartime.

The state has encouraged people to avoid congregations, to wash their hands, wear masks, and so on. But that is different than using state power to quarantine people against their will.

Coerced quarantine has been Japan’s answer for the Diamond Princess cruise ship, and that has been very controversial, especially for the healthy people onboard.

READ: Commentary: Japan shows how not to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak

READ: Commentary: Hit hard by COVID-19, Singapore Airlines may need to pursue deeper capacity cuts

A church in Daegu at the centre of the outbreak there similarly illustrates these tangled legal issues. Its congregants resisted state testing for coronavirus and held services when other churches desisted.

The virus spread, and now the South Korean state is actively hunting down thousands of churchgoers who have not turned up.


When this is all over and the recriminations begin, I think Moon will take the greatest criticism over the lack of a China travel ban. 

There is now nearly universal consensus across South Korean opinion that the president should have moved quickly to cut off China travel, much as many other countries did.

In fact, at the time of this writing, South Korea still has not done that. The logic seems to be that now is too late, so what is the point?

I have argued elsewhere that this hesitation is almost certainly political. South Korea is open to pressure. China is its top export destination, and South Korea remains export dependent.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) wearing a protective face mask waves as he inspects the novel coronavirus pneumonia prevention and control work at a neighbourhoods in Beijing. (Pang Xinglei/Xinhua via AP)

Moon personally wants better relations for many reasons. Beijing can help bring North Korea to the table, as the North is singularly dependent on China for access to the world economy.

Better relations with China also mean more political space against Japan and the United States. This is deeply attractive to the South Korean left which sees Japan as an opponent, an unrepentant colonialist of the past. And Trump’s relentless picking on South Korea similarly creates a desire, especially on the left here, to draw distance from the Americans.

READ: Commentary: New spats open all too familiar wounds between South Korea and Japan

The next few weeks will be crucial on this final point. If coronavirus persists into March, Moon will likely be pushed into a China travel ban.

China will hit back economically, as it has in the past, but Moon will face an electoral disaster if it looks like he put his personal diplomatic projects over the health of the nation.

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Robert E Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. This commentary first appeared on Lowy Institute’s blog, The Interpreter.

Source: CNA/el


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