How South Korea Lost Control of Its Coronavirus Outbreak

On February 24th, Ha Tae-kyung, a South Korean National Assembly member and a co-chairman of the New Conservative Party, was on a high-speed train to Seoul from Busan, the country’s second-largest city, when he heard that the assembly had cancelled that day’s session and shut down. A participant in the previous week’s parliamentary forum had tested positive for COVID-19, and several politicians were now undergoing a medical screening. “A virus wouldn’t discriminate if it’s a Parliament, the Blue House, or a City Hall,” Ha told me in a phone interview. “But it was the first time in my career that I experienced the parliament closing for such a reason.”

The coronavirus epidemic, which was first detected in Wuhan, China, is having a rapidly intensifying political impact on neighboring countries. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been harshly criticized for his government’s handling of a cruise-ship outbreak that has resulted in at least six deaths and seven hundred infections. In South Korea, which has reported thirty-five deaths and more than fifty-six hundred infections—the highest number after China—the virus is threatening the Presidency of Moon Jae-in.

This matters because of who Moon is and what his Presidency means for South Koreans. In 2017, Moon, a former human-rights lawyer and Democratic Party candidate, was elected in an emergency election following the impeachment and removal of President Park Geun-hye, a conservative who is now serving a twenty-five-year prison sentence for abuse of power and corruption. Public anger, which culminated in massive street protests by millions of Koreans, had roots in the 2014 sinking of the ferry M.V. Sewol, in which nearly three hundred teen-agers drowned. The accident revealed fundamental failures in the Korean governmental system and neglect by the head of state, who was absent in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. The National Assembly held hearings to investigate President Park’s whereabouts during what they called “the golden time” when lives might have been saved. During his campaign, Moon pledged that a President and the Blue House must serve as the “control tower” during national disasters. That promise now haunts his Presidency.

On January 26th, three days after China’s lockdown on Wuhan, the Korean Medical Association, the country’s largest association of doctors, urged the government to temporarily bar entry to all travellers arriving from mainland China. Moon’s government did not heed that warning. Instead, it donated a million and a half face masks to China. Moon’s defenders point out that the World Health Organization does not recommend a travel ban for virus prevention, but Dr. Choi Jae-wook, professor of Preventive Medicine at Koryo University and the chairman of the K.M.A.’s scientific-verification committee, told me that countries must adapt when facing a potential pandemic. “In South Korea, there were fewer than ten infected back then and they had all come through China,” Dr. Choi said. “At the time, there were seventy thousand people coming from China per day. Sure, they can check for any sign of fever at the airport, but many show no symptoms, and some get sick only afterward. The foremost priority for any infectious disease is to stop contagion, and the most basic solution in this case was a restriction.”

Four days later, on January 30th, the W.H.O. declared a global health emergency, and several countries, including the United States and Australia, placed a temporary ban on travellers from China. Other nearby countries, including Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Singapore, quickly did so as well. As of today, more than seventy nations have imposed a temporary ban. In South Korea, Moon faced his “control-tower” moment, the brief “golden-time” window when his response might have limited the country’s outbreak. He declined to impose a full travel ban. Japanese Prime Minister Abe declined as well. Both leaders had plans in place for spring summit visits by Chinese President Xi Jinping. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and Chinese make up about half of the seventeen million tourists who visit the country annually. On February 4th, five days after the W.H.O. declared an emergency, South Korea enacted a limited ban, which barred entry by any foreigners who had visited China’s Hubei Province in the previous two weeks. (Due to China’s lockdown of the province, no one was travelling in and out of Hubei anyway.) Moon’s critics dismissed the limited step as an empty gesture to placate Koreans demanding a full ban.

On February 13th, as the official count of infections in China approached sixty thousand, Moon announced that the virus had been contained in South Korea and predicted it would “disappear before long.” He urged Koreans to return to their normal lives. A week later, on February 20th, in a thirty-minute phone call with Xi, Moon pledged South Korea’s unending support for China’s fight against the coronavirus, saying that “China’s difficulties are our difficulties” and reconfirming the upcoming summit with the Chinese President. That same day, Moon and his wife hosted a chapaguri party (the instant noodle combination made famous by the Oscar-winning film “Parasite”) at the Blue House for the film’s director and cast; photos of the festivity circulated widely on social media. By that afternoon, the number of infections in South Korea had doubled from fifty-one to a hundred and four, and the first COVID-19-related death in the country was reported. Within thirty-six hours, five more Koreans died from the virus, and the number of infections grew to more than six hundred.

Opposition leaders are vowing to make President Moon Jae-in’s response to the coronavirus a central issue of the upcoming midterm-election campaign.Photograph from South Korean Presidential Blue House / Getty

On February 23rd, Moon finally raised the coronavirus alert to the highest level and declared a voluntary lockdown of affected cities and provinces, but the virus had already spread across the entire country. In a speech, Moon blamed the outbreak in South Korea on members of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious group widely considered to be a cult, whose adherents make up more than half of those infected with COVID-19. “The before and after situations of the group infection among the Shincheonji followers, which is occurring at a huge scale, presents completely different circumstances,” Moon said. In January, the group had held several large services in Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city. Attendees included members who had recently visited the group’s branch in Wuhan, China, and the virus appears to have spread among participants.

Three years after Moon campaigned on a promise of governing more effectively during an emergency than Park, the incumbent’s response to one has resembled that of his predecessor. After the ferry disaster, Park blamed the tragedy on the ship’s owner, a founder of a different religious group also considered a cult. After the Park administration issued an arrest warrant for the ferry owner, he went into hiding. Eventually, he was found dead, an apparent suicide. On March 1st, the city of Seoul, whose mayor, like Moon, is a member of the Democratic Party, asked prosecutors to charge Lee Man-hee, the founder of the Shincheonji Church, and the religious group’s other leaders for murder for their alleged role in spreading COVID-19. That afternoon, Lee held a press conference, got down on his knees, bowed twice, and apologized for the group’s role in the outbreak, which he said was accidental.

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