Covid-19: Increased responsiveness helps South Korea legitimize authoritarian pandemic response measures

Despite the South Korean government’s authoritarian Covid-19 measures that have sparked concerns over the possible violation of personal rights, no public protests against the government’s response have been witnessed thus far. In this article, Seohee Kwak explains why, showing that the high level of responsiveness of the government in tackling the pandemic lowers the perceived need for contentious political action.

People lined up at a pharmacy to buy masks in Sejong City. Image Credit: Rickinasia on WikiMedia (Created 16 March 2020).
People lined up at a pharmacy to buy masks in Sejong City. Image Credit: Rickinasia on WikiMedia (Created 16 March 2020).

While the fight against Covid-19 remains arguably the most pressing issue worldwide, protests that express opposition to the government are erupting in many parts of the world. Protesters are mainly concerned about government measures to contain the virus and how governments are handling the economic fallout arising from the slowing down of economies and life through lockdown measures.

In South Korea, the Moon Jae-in administration has done its utmost to contain the virus as well as to mitigate public concerns, and it is often seen as a success case, with infections contained despite an initial surge. South Korea has a strong protest culture, citizens taking collective action when they wish to make political demands. One of the most remarkable examples is the 2016-2017 candlelight protests, when Korean citizens took to the streets to call for the resignation of the president and the protection of the country’s democracy.

However, mass protests against the government’s responses to Covid-19 have not yet materialized in Korean society. A closer look shows that certain governing strategies may have helped this on despite the relative invasiveness of the government’s measures in fighting the virus.

Contact tracing through surveillance

The government has instituted several measures since the virus outbreak, including drive-through and walk-through testing facilities and a compulsory 14-day quarantine and monitoring of inbound travelers.[1] In particular, state authorities have implemented so-called ‘contact tracing’ of those who have tested positive. Public officials have the authority to trace the recent travel history and contacts of those who have tested positive by screening GPS on their mobile phones, credit card transactions, and closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in places visited by potential carriers. Municipalities publicize information on the respective government portal and send emergency text alerts to people’s mobile phones to keep them updated about new cases in their region.

Balancing public health concerns and privacy breaches

The authority to collect and process personal data is guaranteed, if necessary, for epidemiological investigation and in the name of public health. Two government acts, the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act and the Personal Information Protection Act, ensure that data may be collected, but has to be responsibly managed.

Initially, personal information about infected persons was made public, causing social stigma for carriers. Also, small businesses were hurt, since people avoided going to shops and restaurants that those who tested positive had visited despite disinfection measures having been taken. Correspondingly, whereas contact tracing has been made possible by a certain degree of public consent, critical concerns over privacy breaches have been raised.

Moreover, to prevent the spread of the virus, Seoul and several other municipalities have banned people from assembling in some public spaces and religious facilities in the name of public safety. This has sparked condemnations, being interpreted as restrictions to the freedom of assembly and religious freedom. These measures do not correspond to the Constitution of South Korea that protects these rights.

Countering privacy breaches by openness in governing the pandemic

As criticism over the violation of privacy increased, the government adjusted the scope of the public release of information, not disclosing the names of the places that infected persons visited and officially erasing the information after 14 days of their last contact with someone.

In addition, the Korean government has made commitments not only to fight the virus in the name of public safety, but also to interact with the public to fulfill its duty of vertical accountability. State authorities have held press conferences every day or even twice a day. Also, informative press releases and official statistical data moreover are easily accessible by anyone.

South Korea’s balanced approach

While ministries and municipalities have exercised their authority which arguably limits people’s rights, they have released statements that respond to public concerns and correct media reports so as to ensure the public has sufficient and correct information about two key elements: how the pandemic is developing, and how the government is responding to it.

Despite many complaints made both online and offline, the ruling liberal party won a landslide victory in the general election in April 2020, indicating that public support has not been compromised since the pandemic’s outbreak. Moreover, a monthly survey by Gallup shows that 85% (May), 77% (June), and 78% (July) of around 1,000 surveyed respondents were satisfied with the government’s Covid-19 responses[2].

The current Korean government’s Covid-19 measures can be viewed as a balanced approach of strong authority and a high level of responsiveness. In other words, the government’s authority used for the common goal of tackling Covid-19 is tolerated to an extent that people have the low perceived need for contentious collective action.

[1] A further explanation of the Korean government’s response system is available at http://ncov.mohw.go.kr/en/baroView.do?brdId=11&brdGubun=111&dataGubun=&ncvContSeq=&contSeq=&board_id=&gubun=

[2] The report is available only in Korean. It should be noted that the satisfaction rate with the government’s Covid-19 measures is not the same as the approval rating of the incumbent administration.

About the author:

Seohee KwakSeohee Kwak is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). Her current research focuses on political action and state response in Vietnam. With a geographical interest in the Southeast and East Asian regions, her academic interests include political rights, protest, state repression, and state-society relations.

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