This post is part of a series from Asia Unbound. This post is authored by Song Ho-chang, managing director of East Asia strategy at Fiscalnote. He is a former South Korean Congressman and member of incumbent President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely his own.
By April 15, 2020, overwhelming fear of COVID-19 had spread across the world. However, South Korea successfully held its general elections as planned and the ruling Democratic Party won by a landslide. Many countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Japan, have issued “stay at home” orders, and forty-seven countries have postponed their elections due to COVID-19. What explains South Korea’s success?
From the far past and into the 21st century, South Korea has overcome numerous invasions, wars, and disasters. In particular, the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014 and the MERS outbreak in 2015 both shaped the current administration’s successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the Sewol ferry sank on April 16, 2014, I was a young congressman serving as strategic planning chairman of the Democratic Party (the then opposition party). I had just given a speech at a media event when a journalist told me that a passenger ship was sinking off the west coast. As a father of two sons close in age to the 290 high school students aboard the ferry, I was shocked and horrified.
It later emerged that although the terrified students inside the ferry could have escaped, they obeyed the instructions of their captain to “stay in place.” The captain subsequently abandoned the ship along with some crew members, and over three hundred people perished.
Even as a congressman, I could do nothing. It took three years to salvage the last bodies of the victims and in the meantime, then-President Park Geun-hye’s administration hurried to evade responsibility and refused to admit the failures in its crisis response.
MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) hit South Korea a little over a year after the Sewol sank, in May 2015. Park’s government again failed to protect the Korean people. Without prompt and transparent disclosure of information about the infected patients, the virus quickly spread across the country and resulted in thirty-six fatalities. Park government officials again hurried to evade responsibility.
The trauma that I and my fellow Koreans experienced during the Sewol disaster and MERS outbreak led us to act against the government that failed to protect our lives. Subsequent incidents of corruption were discovered in the following years and more than ten million protestors gathered across South Korea. Park was finally impeached in 2016 and imprisoned in 2018.
With all these experiences, the Korean people and government were prepared at the end of January 2020, when the COVID-19 virus began to spread quickly across the country. In contrast to Park’s actions during the Sewol disaster, the Moon government responded quickly and transparently to protect the people. Due to experience with MERS, hospitals had the protective medical equipment and facilities necessary to isolate suspected patients, and the people had access to this care under South Korea’s national health insurance system.
With the help of South Korea’s cutting-edge IT infrastructure and commercialized 5G network, the government has quickly identified those who may have come into contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases. Each day, experts from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide transparent, detailed updates on the virus infection situation, prevention measures, and government guidelines to the people. The people are also voluntarily following all guidelines: wearing masks, washing their hands, and following social distancing guidelines.
Meanwhile, the National Assembly elections on April 15 rapidly approached. Around mid-March, criticism of government policies that did not block entry from China was growing. The COVID-19 crisis subsumed all other policy issues, including economics, diplomacy, foreign affairs, and security.
Even within the ruling party, strong voices called for suspension of the vote. However, though some argued it would be politically advantageous to postpone the election, President Moon Jae-in decided to hold the elections as scheduled to uphold the right of the citizens to participate in democratic elections. Thanks to the strong public health system, rigorous public and individual efforts to decrease the spread of the virus, and public confidence in the national crisis system built by the Moon government, it was possible to hold elections even during a pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any crisis we have confronted before and cannot be handled by a single country or government alone. However, U.S. President Donald J. Trump recently announced the suspension of funding for the WHO and China promulgated fake news that the U.S. military intentionally spread COVID-19. Both superpowers are eager to evade their responsibilities and place blame on the other.
In a crisis, the people are reminded of why they need the nation and a leader. Though people often complain about high taxes, they realize the value of social infrastructure during times of crisis. Due to their experiences during the Sewol tragedy and MERS outbreak, the Korean people have prioritized the safety of the people and trust that the current government is capable of managing the crisis.
We now need a global leader who understands the need for all nations to work together – not shut their doors to the world. We need to trust, to cooperate, and to take responsibility for our actions. The COVID-19 pandemic is demanding true leadership amid a global crisis. Leaders around the world must rise to the challenge.