When will South Korea collapse?

South Korea's Dealing with Coronavirus: The Cost of Success

In contrast to western countries, South Korea has successfully contained the spread of the virus without nationwide curfews. How will it now deal with the social and economic consequences of the pandemic?

While some western countries are cautiously beginning to relax their curfews, South Korea has so far been able to master the corona crisis successfully without such massive restrictions. Hardly anything has changed in the cityscape in South Korea, the companies continue to work, and the shops, restaurants and bars are also open. Only schools and kindergartens are closed and mass events have been canceled. On April 15, there were even elections to the national parliament, the highest turnout in 28 years. The huge victory of President Moon Jae-in's party in the vote is mainly due to the successful crisis management of his government. How did South Korea achieve this remarkable success and what challenges does the government now face after it has apparently emerged stronger from the elections? In some cases, South Korea was just lucky in the crisis, but what was even more crucial was that it was institutionally and mentally well prepared from previous crises.

Due to the very close economic ties with China and the large number of Chinese tourists, South Korea was one of the first countries to be hit by the pandemic, but at the same time it has some important advantages due to its location: The nation is practically the same with its closed border in the north an island, which makes it easy to control people entering and leaving the country. In addition, the South Korean health system is well developed, as the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2020 published on April 29 confirms: "General health insurance is the most progressive element of the welfare state." did not hesitate to seek treatment. This restricted the spread of the virus and reduced the number of undetected infections.

Armed for the MERS outbreak

A MERS outbreak in 2015 prompted South Korea to improve its security system. Measures that were already taken before the Corona crisis were to inform all travelers about infectious diseases and to regularly check the temperature of arriving passengers with cameras at the airports. In addition, the MERS panic was fresh in the minds of South Koreans, and most put on masks immediately when the threat emerged. Contrary to popular belief in Western countries, the wearing of masks was never ordered by the government, but arose from raising public awareness of the issue and the government's ability to mobilize the nation. It also helped that South Korea has a domestic mask production facility, which produces more than 10 million masks a day, mainly due to the high levels of air pollution in winter and spring.

When the country was hit by the crisis this time, the government reacted quickly and expanded testing capacities, invented corona drive-in test stations and successfully pursued routes of infection. South Korea was fortunate that the first infections were concentrated in a few easily identifiable outbreaks, such as Shincheonj Church, that were quickly isolated. Travel restrictions for the Chinese province of Hubei were also issued early and most other travelers were forced to adhere to a 14-day quarantine and download a self-monitoring app on their mobile phones. Later, the movement tracking of people who tested positive played an important role.

In South Korea, there have been few privacy concerns with people tracking their mobility. Everyone can track the movements of all known corona patients on the Internet or in apps. Names were not posted, but almost all other information was public. Alerts were sent through apps and in text messages to those who might have come into contact with those affected. In many ways, mobility and contact tracking is far less intrusive than the nationwide curfews implemented in Western countries. On the other hand, curfews will eventually be lifted, but data collection will most likely continue.

Protection of privacy?

What has so far been clearly missing are debates about the protection of personal data and how the misuse of information can be prevented. This is particularly worrying because institutions that protect the rights of individuals from the state are still underdeveloped. Formally, the south is still at war with the north and a national security law restricts freedom of expression and association. In such an inherently repressive environment, there is always the risk that restrictions on individual freedoms will be abused by an overpowering executive. Although South Korea was institutionally and mentally well prepared for the crisis, it is to be feared that this will apply far less to the time after Corona.

Due to its export dependency, South Korea will be one of the countries hardest hit by the crisis. Ironically, South Korea's success in containing infections could mean the economic impacts linger longer as it will take longer for a large part of the population to develop immunity. For the underdeveloped welfare state with a high proportion of precarious employment, this means that the inevitable economic crisis will soon have massive social effects.

From the elections to a Korea after Corona

His party's election victory enables President Moon to return to his original promise of a more social, democratic and environmentally friendly South Korea. In particular, his plans to bolster domestic demand through social policies, wage increases and more workers' rights seem appropriate at a time when exports are most likely to collapse. At the same time, the BTI country report 2020 warns of the dangers of an “imperial presidency”, since the powers of the president in South Korea are far-reaching. In contrast to the “war on the virus”, the post-Corona Korea cannot simply be created through technocratic interventions and national mobilization campaigns, because the necessary changes will result in redistribution and will therefore lead to massive resistance from interest groups.

Times of crisis have always been times of the executive. However, after Corona, South Korea needs a broad public debate with a variety of opinions on the various policy options. What ultimately shapes a society is not the wars it wins, but the way in which decisions are made for a better future.

Translated from English by Karola Klatt.