The coronavirus pandemic has put many governments around the world on the defensive, as they have struggled to handle the public health emergency effectively. South Korea (along with Taiwan and New Zealand) have seen their global standing rise as they are some of the few democracies that have done better at holding the virus at bay. The scholar who coined the term soft power, Joseph Nye, recently lauded Seoul by saying “[South] Korea has set a very good example of the democracy which handled the pandemic well.”
In a tumultuous year, South Korea has been a reminder of how ordinary citizens and government officials can rally together even in very trying circumstances. But whether this success is credited to government competence or solidarity among citizens, Seoul has shown that such crises don’t always have to undermine the resilience of society as a whole—in fact, when hard challenges are met, such crises can even deepen such resilience. In this way, South Korea could be a model for other countries of effective public policy, a healthy respect for science, and resilience in the face of daunting challenges.
How the South Korean Government Have Managed the Pandemic
The South Korean government deserves credit for mounting an effective response to the pandemic. By skillfully mobilizing widespread testing, agile contact tracing, and efficient treatment, South Korea has done better than most countries at flattening the curve and curbing the spread of the virus. In part, this is because South Korea learned key lessons from the 2015 outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), when it had the second-largest number of infections after Saudi Arabia. After that outbreak, the South Korean government crafted an efficient pandemic response that relied heavily on an array of tactics. These included a contact tracing regime that made extensive use of personal information like GPS data, surveillance camera footage, and credit card transaction histories to effectively track individuals who may have been infected (see photo 1). When the current pandemic surfaced, this preparation paid off.
How South Korean Citizens Have Helped Curb the Pandemic
The government’s response likely would not have been as effective as it has been without citizens’ willing participation. Working together, government officials and citizens even smoothly pulled off the world’s first major election during the pandemic without a major spike in coronavirus infections (see photo 2). So far, many South Koreans have been much more supportive of the government’s efforts to manage the pandemic than their counterparts in other, especially Western, democracies. They have even tolerated government contact tracing using their mobile phones, while displaying fewer qualms about infringements on privacy than such proposals would presumably spark in many Western democracies, where even smaller gestures like wearing masks have proven controversial to some. Indeed, in parts of the United States and Europe, there are those who would see such disclosures of personal information and other pandemic-era restrictions as a grave threat to their individual privacy and personal freedom. Compared to people in parts of Europe and the United States, South Koreans seem less concerned about their freedom being violated during the pandemic than they are about keeping the virus under control.
Of course, such compliance is hardly universal in South Korea. Some South Koreans have argued that the pandemic has triggered a new authoritarian-style government. They argue that the government has sought to expand its clout over its citizens and legitimize the suppression of individual rights under the pretext of the public health crisis. And just because South Koreans are abiding by public health guidelines doesn’t mean they are ignoring the privacy tradeoffs altogether. Many are worried that the government could take advantage of citizens’ compliance, leading to massive government surveillance practices that could outlive the pandemic.
Nonetheless, most South Koreans have complied. Some have chalked up such compliance to cultural factors in South Korea that don’t seem to hold water. For instance, at least a few observers have pointed to the prevalence of Confucian traditions in South Korea, which teach its followers to unconditionally obey political leaders. But that explanation doesn’t seem to work. After all, some of the very same citizens who have mostly adhered to the government’s pandemic stipulations were those who instigated the massive street protests of the 2016 Candlelight Revolution that resulted in the impeachment of then president Park Geun-hye (see photo 3). Cultural factors like Confucianism can’t explain why South Koreans have abided by government orders now but were in the streets demonstrating only a few years ago. While the circumstances of the two cases are very different, a citizen-driven commitment to the public good in the face of national emergencies is evident in both instances.
Most South Korean citizens are cooperating with the government’s all-out pandemic response by voluntarily restricting their movements and wearing masks, among other actions. This widespread public cooperation in South Korea presented a sharp contrast the United States, where many people famously flocked to crowded beaches over the summer, protested economic lockdowns, and declined to wear masks despite the warnings of government officials and public health experts.
Although the South Korean government has passed economic stimulus measures, many are concerned that the pandemic will have severe, long-term economic repercussions. How long South Koreans are willing to support the government’s pandemic control measures remains to be seen. If economic hardships persist, their patience could very well run out. For the most part, the government has received high marks for its handling of the pandemic so far, but this doesn’t mean that public support can be taken for granted. The Blue House has been flooded with online petitioners who are angry over the government’s rosy promises of an economic revival. Like politicians anywhere, South Korean politicians are sensitive to public opinion and the potential risk of rising populism in the wake of the economic suffering the pandemic has unleashed. In short, public compliance with the government’s public health measures won’t be a shield of immunity from political pressures to alleviate the economic toll of the public health emergency.
A Potential Antidote to the Excesses of Globalization
The important ties that bind South Korean government officials and ordinary citizens—a robust participatory democracy combined with an abiding sense of civic responsibility—would be difficult to overstate. The effectiveness of South Koreans’ response to the pandemic speaks for itself. Societal resilience of the kind South Korea has demonstrated could be all the more useful in an era of highly disruptive and contentious worldwide responses to the forces of globalization, especially when compared to the performances of more established soft power leaders such as the EU and the United States.
Globalization will become even more contentious, though neither South Koreans nor people anywhere else can force it back into the bottle or roll it back. Globalization will remain an indelible element of life in South Korea. This will hold true as long as the South Korean economy depends on critical linkages with the world economy including the country’s exports and oil and natural gas imports. Yet, at the same time, if South Korea’s resilient citizens continue to embrace grassroots democracy, human rights and civic freedoms, and (crucially) civic duties, that resilience will also continue to be an unmistakable dimension of South Korean global standing.