By David Hundt*
For South Korea, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has been an opportunity to burnish its ‘national brand’. It has experienced relatively few daily infections, cumulative deaths are not high by world standards and vaccination rates are above global averages. The ‘tool-kit’ of policy responses for managing the pandemic is theoretically the same for all countries, but the hallmark of South Korea’s approach has been the ability to make pragmatic choices amid imperfect conditions.
The pandemic has witnessed the revival of some aspects of the ‘developmental state’ tradition in the public health sphere. An approach to governance that had been associated with economic development has gained new traction. At a time of great uncertainty, the public in South Korea and elsewhere have generally welcomed confident and purposeful intervention from the government. South Korean leaders have adopted a reactive approach that reflects the country’s small geographic size and its organisation as a unitary state under a powerful executive government.
From the outset, Korean leaders were careful to define success in terms of containment rather than elimination of the virus. The goal was always to minimise infections, hospitalisations, and deaths, but there was an assumption that some infections were inevitable in a densely populated country, in part due to its proximity to the epicentre of the pandemic, in China. South Korea’s experience handling other pandemics in the early 21st century gave the government confidence that it could prevent the virus reaching critical infection rates.
South Korea adopted a relatively permissive stance on international borders. This reflects demand for migrant labour in the Korean economy, its close integration with China and the high levels of interaction between South Korea and China. The rapid and unexpected influx of the virus foreclosed the ‘elimination’ option, so it might have been tempting to shift the blame onto China. But the government correctly noted that South Koreans were primarily responsible for bringing and spreading the virus. The decision to avoid blaming China helped prevent an already fraught relationship with Beijing from worsening.
South Korea’s prior experience managing pandemics — and its willingness to keep its borders relatively open — gave it confidence that it could manage the challenge with light-touch measures such as contact tracing, home quarantine and masking. There were minimal economic shutdowns, and economic life proceeded significantly undisturbed with some adjustments. South Korea offered little allowances for laid-off workers and those who were forced to work from home. Public debt increased only modestly between 2020 and 2021. One indicator of the effectiveness of these measures in minimising disruptions was when the April 2020 legislative elections took place on schedule and with the highest turnout in 30 years.
In keeping with the developmental state’s traditional emphasis on industrialisation, Korean firms switched to producing masks and test-kits for both domestic use and export. In May 2020, South Korea donated 2 million masks to the United States to relieve shortfalls during the first wave. Another 500,000 were given to the Department of Veterans Affairs, in a symbolic repayment to the US military for rescuing South Korea during the Korean War. A Korean test-kit was developed and distributed within weeks of the virus reaching Korea, thanks to close collaboration between the government and industry.
South Korea packaged its pandemic diplomacy within the Moon Jae-in government’s New Southern Policy, which aims to improve relations with ASEAN and India. The policy’s three pillars — economic cooperation, sociocultural development, and peace building — address the ‘high politics’ of security and economics as well as the ‘low politics’ of people-to-people relations. South Korea has sought to address the strong demand for ‘affordable and accessible’ vaccines, as well as economic recovery, in densely populated developing countries such as Indonesia. Korean diplomatic overtures in core Southeast Asian countries, especially Singapore and Indonesia, have presented COVID-19 diplomacy to complement a longer term goal of fostering interests in the region.
South Korea’s pragmatic approach has fared favourably compared to the more authoritarian version of developmentalism in China and the liberal approach of some Western states, some of whom have suffered high rates of deaths and infections. The Korean approach has been reasonably consistent and coherent thanks to a commitment by the government to communicate openly with the public and to follow the advice of health professionals. This has engendered a strong sense of national unity and purpose.
But no single approach is a total panacea, and certainly not South Korea’s. The country remains open to some international travellers, but formerly popular tourist areas such as Myeongdong have turned into ‘ghost towns’ due to their heavy reliance on foreign visitors and restrictions on the size of gatherings. There has been criticism of the government’s slow vaccine rollout, with evidence that vaccination rates could be much higher now if the government had acted earlier. Foreign-passport holders have been subjected to arbitrary treatment in terms of testing, reminiscent of the exclusionary forms of nationalism of previous eras.
Despite these shortcomings, Moon has avoided the historical curse of South Korean presidents, who tend to suffer a chronic decline in popularity and effectiveness over terms. This suggests that the Korean public recognises the enduring benefits of the developmentalist model of pragmatic governance in spite of its downsides.
*About the author: David Hundt is an Associate Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University.