Maxine Builder is a research associate for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
When the Ebola outbreak in West Africa began receiving international attention in August, South Korea panicked.
A restaurant in Seoul posted a sign in its front window announcing, “We apologize but due to Ebola Virus we are not accepting Africans at the moment.” A Korean university withdrew its invitation to three Nigerian students to participate in an academic conference. Most ludicrous was Korean Air’s decision to suspend flights to Nairobi, Kenya, a city over 3,000 miles from the outbreak.But almost as quickly as the panic set in, the international backlash began. The restaurant’s ban on Africans became a widely discussed scandal in Seoul’s expatriate community, primarily composed of Westerners. The owner quickly posted a new sign, reversing the short-lived policy and apologizing for any disrespect it may have caused. Within hours of Korean Air’s suspension of flights to Kenya, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially reiterated air travel is low risk for Ebola transmission, and there was no need to cancel flights to or from the affected region, let alone to cities on the other side of the continent. The WHO did not call out the airline directly (and flights to Kenya have not restarted), but it was clear Korean Air was the targeted recipient of the message.
South Korea’s initial response to the Ebola crisis is not entirely unexpected, and is demonstrative of the country’s growing pains as it tries to balance cultural history with its newfound wealth. The country has a long history of isolation, and only truly opened up to foreign trade in the last fifty years. Korea’s population remains overwhelmingly homogenous, and has had difficulty adopting an inclusive posture toward foreigners. Earlier this month a United Nations special rapporteur on racism and discrimination cited the country for “serious problems” of racial discrimination and xenophobia. It is therefore unsurprising that the country’s first instinct when faced with a serious threat from abroad, particularly from a disease with a 70 percent fatality rate in West Africa, is to shut out individuals who might import the disease.
But the foreign pressure—ranging from expatriates living in Korea to multilateral institutions—on South Korea to rein back its reactionary response indicates the higher standard to which the country is being held. Other countries and institutions expect South Korea, as a middle power, to respond to global threats rationally and rapidly in a way it does not expect of other less affluent countries.
It now seems South Korea is taking its response to the Ebola outbreak seriously, and better understands its role. At last Friday’s Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan, President Park Geun-hye announced South Korea will send ten health officials to West Africa, and pledged $5.6 million in unspecified aid. At this same meeting, a spokesman from South Korea’s foreign ministry acknowledged, “…this issue will not be confined to the regions directly hit by Ebola but will threaten stability in the overall international community from which we ourselves cannot be free.”
South Korea’s actual contribution to fight Ebola is still relatively small, especially when compared to its neighbors’ commitments. China has been a generous donor, most recently pledging $6 million for food aid. Japan, meanwhile, announced a plan to send two experts to Sierra Leone, and pledged $40 million at the UN Security Council in September. Of that promised funding, approximately $4 million has already been dispersed to UN agencies fighting the outbreak.
South Korea’s commitment to fight Ebola is far from the strongest, but it demonstrates an understanding that an isolationist stance is no longer a viable option, particularly if it wants to continue meaningful participation in the global economy. And despite its initial xenophobic reaction to the outbreak, South Korea changed its attitude and rose to the challenge under international pressures.
The next step is for South Korea to show it is capable of taking on this responsibility of its own volition, and already, the country is learning from its mistakes. This month, South Korea will host a series of international conferences with 150 participants hailing from West Africa including Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Officials will “keep an eye on them” and take precautions to screen high-risk participants for Ebola, but this is a far cry from the travel bans and rescinded invitations of August. If South Korea wants to be seen as a constructive force in times of crisis, it needs to put aside homogenous biases, skip past the panic, and move straight to the assistance.