While every country has been disrupted by the pandemic, each nation’s Covid-19 response and scale of casualties have differed significantly. Many so-called advanced Western countries, such as the United States, Spain, and the United Kingdom, have failed to respond promptly to the pandemic by exposing their ineffective crisis management systems, which have resulted in horrifying human casualties. By contrast, New Zealand, Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea are considered to have contained the virus quite effectively. South Korea is a particularly notable case: Without implementing radical measures such as closed borders or a complete lockdown, like other countries, it has managed to flatten the curve and maintain lower fatality rates. As of January 5, 2021, the total death count amounted to 1,007. The total number of cases reached 64,979, and the number of daily cases remained fewer than 1,000 a day. (Though the numbers look much worse now than in the past summer when new cases were around 50 a day, South Korea is still doing much better compared with other countries at this point.) Almost the only country that held a national legislative election in April 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, South Korea has been held up by foreign media, health experts, and political leaders as an exemplary case of a nation successfully managing this global crisis.
Here, I will explain how South Korea was able to effectively control the outbreak from a critical perspective. Though some Western commentators have maintained that Confucian values—collectivist culture and obedient citizens—were the key to containing Covid-19 in South Korea,1→Timothy W. Martin and Marcus Walker, “East vs. West: Coronavirus Fight Tests Divergent Strategies,” Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2020.
→Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, “MOFA Insight Series Episode 1 – Guy Sorman Speaks on Post-Corona Era: ‘Culture and Society,’” May 11, 2020. I instead pay attention to political and institutional factors: In addition to the country’s government capability, I emphasize the role of deeply-penetrated surveillance infrastructures that enabled health authorities to trace those who were in contact with the virus immediately. However, these surveillance practices have also raised critical concerns about political governance and democratic practices.
South Korea’s disease prevention infrastructure
South Korea avoided a public health disaster through extensive testing and rigorous quarantine measures, common strategies among countries that contained Covid-19 relatively successfully. Having been forced to deal with numerous epidemics over the last several years, the South Korean government had developed a highly efficient, well-coordinated disaster response system, using highly advanced information and communications technology. As the nation’s public health control hub, the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), housed under the Ministry of Health and Welfare, offered timely and effective control measures. Led by top scientists and health experts, the KCDC has held daily briefings for the public since the beginning of the outbreak.“One of the most important steps taken by the South Korean government in the early phase of the outbreak was investing in extensive and speedy testing.”
One of the most important steps taken by the South Korean government in the early phase of the outbreak was investing in extensive and speedy testing. The South Korean government’s considerable R&D spending encouraged private companies to develop test kits quickly, and the government authorized the emergency use of the diagnostic kit immediately.2Government of the Republic of Korea, “Flattening the curve on Covid-19: How Korea responded to a pandemic using ICT,” April 15, 2020. By setting up easily accessible walk-through and drive-through testing centers, the government enhanced testing capabilities to a point where an average of 12,000 people—and sometimes as many as 20,000 people—were tested a day.3Justin McCurry, “Test, Trace, Contain: How South Korea Flattened Its Coronavirus Curve,” The Guardian, April 23, 2020. By late June 2020, a total of 1.17 million people had gotten tested for the virus—2.3 percent of the entire population.4“1.17 million, 2.3% of the Total Population Got Tested,” Dong-A Ilbo, June 21, 2020.
By sending emergency alert text messages to all mobile phones through the country’s cellular broadcasting service (CBS), the government regularly updated citizens about new cases and gave warnings about potential virus “hot spots.”5Government of the Republic of Korea, “Flattening the Curve on Covid-19.” For example, every resident receives an emergency text when the local government identifies newly confirmed cases. Each municipal government website posts specific information about the newly infected—their ages, the blocks in which they live, all the places to which they have been, how they became infected, and where they were tested and treated. Thus, those who happened to be at the same place at the same time as someone who had been infected could be informed and tested quickly; such contacts might have otherwise gone unnoticed for days or weeks. Lastly, the government closely monitored populations that may have been exposed to the virus—particularly travelers arriving from abroad. Those who arrived from abroad were required to install self-diagnosis applications on their mobile phones, submit all their health-related information, and get tested for Covid-19 upon entering the country. They are still required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Through its close monitoring system, the South Korean government has been able to prevent further spread of the virus from overseas.“South Korea’s Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act grants state officials access to the personal information of both confirmed and potential patients without a warrant.”
These seemingly successful state actions, however, are embedded in particular legal and technological infrastructures that render surveillance ubiquitous in daily life. South Korea’s Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act grants state officials access to the personal information of both confirmed and potential patients without a warrant.6Brian J. Kim, “South Korea Has the Legal Infrastructure to Fight Pandemics; The U.S. Doesn’t,” Global Asia 15, no. 1 (March 2020). Under this law, articles 6 and 34-2 refer to citizens’ “right to know” and mandate that the Minister of Health and Welfare promptly disclose information about the “movement paths, transportation means, medical treatment institutions, and contacts of patients of the infectious disease.” Health authorities can request for private telecommunications companies and the National Police Agency to share the “location information of patients … and [of] persons likely to be infected.” Each patient’s meticulous whereabouts are acquired through CCTV footage, credit card histories, and cellular geolocation data. After the complete failure of containing a MERS outbreak in 2015—ending up with the second most infections (186) and deaths (36) behind Saudi Arabia—the issue of public safety was largely raised and the laws were amended so that the centralization and publicization of personal information were possible during disease outbreaks.7Sangchul Park, Gina Jeehyun Choi, and Haksoo Ko, “Information Technology-Based Tracing Strategy in Response to COVID-19 in South Korea,” JAMA 323, no. 21 (2020): 2129–2130. This legal framework allows the government to acquire relevant and necessary data, to rapidly trace the infection routes of confirmed patients, and to reveal critical information to the public in order to curb outbreaks.
These legal provisions can only work effectively under highly developed technological infrastructures. A global leader of information and communications technology, South Korea has one of the most extensive broadband and mobile networks in the world, where almost everybody has access to the internet. Nearly all Korean citizens currently own mobile phones, with 95 percent owning smart phones. Approximately 860,000 4G and 5G transceivers, which cover the entire country, record phone locations automatically with complete accuracy.8Jung Won Sonn, “Coronavirus: South Korea’s Success in Controlling Disease Is Due to its Acceptance of Surveillance,” The Conversation, March 2020. In addition, other security tools are widespread in South Korea. For example, as of 2015, there were almost 740,000 CCTVs on the streets, and about 1.5 million CCTVs in both public and private places, which amounts to 34 persons per CCTV.9Ministry of Interior and Safety, The Yearbook of Interior and Governance (Deajon: The Ministry of Interior and Safety, 2016). Most drivers in South Korea also own automotive black boxes in their cars that record information related to car accidents—which adds up to 4.5 million black boxes in total. Furthermore, as credit and debit cards with transportation passes are rapidly replacing cash as the primary means of payment, information on people’s daily routines is logged every second. Thus, state officials could take advantage of these existing surveillance infrastructures, which helped them to meticulously detect the movements of the newly infected and the time they spent at each location. It would be difficult to explain the containment of the coronavirus in Korea without mentioning the state’s enormous capacity to track and monitor its citizens.“Statewide commitment to overcoming the pandemic, combined with readily available high technology, has expanded and legitimized the deeply penetrating surveillance system.”
Since Covid-19 has lingered for several months, the government has strengthened its monitoring system using high digital technology. For example, following a rise in people violating the rules of mandatory self-quarantine, the government adopted a more developed application to monitor those in self-quarantine more closely. Designed to alert health authorities of any abnormalities in location data, it sends a warning signal if a phone is left in one place for too long or if any movement is not traced, because it is assumed that the person has left his or her phone at home and moved outside. Recently, the government has also adopted QR code-based registration of visitors at high-risk areas, such as bars, clubs, and religious and entertainment facilities.10“South Korea Launches Mandatory QR Code-based Registration at Entertainment Facilities Amid Pandemic,” Yonhap News, June 10, 2020. Visitors to these facilities are required to download a one-time QR code via smartphone apps, which can be scanned at the door. By registering customers’ information digitally, this new system can rapidly detect the infected and trace contacts once an infection arises. Statewide commitment to overcoming the pandemic, combined with readily available high technology, has expanded and legitimized the deeply penetrating surveillance system.
Challenges of an intrusive surveillance system
While there is no doubt that South Korea’s response to Covid-19 has been effective, the extensive use of and reliance on surveillance systems and security techniques have also raised critical concerns about the infringement of privacy and basic rights. Local authorities have released very private information on each patient, and his or her daily routine has become public knowledge: gender and age; where (neighborhood and block) one lives; where one goes to school or work; what transportation one uses; and all the places one stopped by. This release of abundant personal information arguably provides too many details about one’s personal life—information that may not be necessary to contain the virus. The publicly revealed details of patients’ particular behaviors have become the object of discussion and criticism online and in the media—for example, whether or not an infected person wore a mask outside, or why they “unnecessarily” walked around and went to particular places. If the infected are found to have not been careful about their movements, they are harshly criticized as “irresponsible” and “immoral” citizens “lacking in civic virtues” in online spaces and stigmatized as harmful beings that spread the virus. Indeed, according to one survey conducted in February, respondents felt more afraid of their specific whereabouts being publicized and the possibility of being publicly shamed for getting infected than the actual disease itself.11Woori Chang, “More Afraid of Social Stigmatization than the Disease,” Yonhap News, February 4, 2020.
Consider the outbreak that originated in a night club in the Itaewon area in May 2020. A 29-year-old patient went barhopping in Itaewon—one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Seoul—a few days before he was diagnosed with Covid-19. Health officials tracked down this person’s movements and published the nightclub locations he visited online. After some media outlets reported that the nightclubs’ main clientele were LGBT people,12“A Person with Covid-19 Has Visited the Itaewon Club,” The Kookmin Ilbo, May 8, 2020. hate speech against LGBT people proliferated on the internet. Since many clubgoers were afraid of revealing their sexual orientation and getting outed in a society where homophobia is common, health authorities faced difficulties reaching them. Many of the clubgoers provided false contact information to the clubs and did not answer phone calls from the authorities. Although the local government solicited anonymous information, it was still able to identify people through location data from credit card records, security camera footage, and base transceiver station records. The fact that a total of 56,000 people associated with the Itaewon night clubs got tested within several days reveals the magnitude of South Korea’s testing capacity and infrastructural power. Yet, it also illustrates how surveillance systems are so densely knitted in every corner of society. And in cases where the identities of racial or sexual minorities are exposed publicly, those in already-vulnerable social positions are at risk of experiencing even more volatile hate speech and scapegoating.
In this state of emergency, society faces the challenging situation of striking the balance between public health and individual rights and negotiating to what extent state surveillance can be legitimized for the sake of public safety. Over the last decade, tech companies have accelerated data-gathering and tracing technology practices, and the pandemic will only facilitate the expansion of surveillance technology into public health and other sectors. Since the 9/11 attacks, we have witnessed the US government practice invasive state power and restrict civil liberties through warrantless wiretapping and the reckless collection of personal records in the name of counterterrorism. And once the government establishes expansive surveillance, it is extremely difficult to roll back, which opens the door to other uses of personal data.
Balancing mass surveillance and public health“There is always the possibility that the country’s enormous database system and advanced surveillance technology can be put in the hands of a less democratic and less accountable government in the future.”
Despite some concerns, South Korea’s people-tracking technology has been used relatively transparently and reliably under the current Moon Jae In administration. Following advice from the Human Rights Commission and other NGOs that were concerned with the infringement of privacy and human rights resulting from the excessive release of personal information, the government finally limited the scope of released information about confirmed patients. According to the government, the personal information collected will be only used for the purpose of epidemiological investigation and will be automatically deleted after a few weeks. However, given the nature of surveillance programs that tend to grow beyond their original scope, we should also caution against the normalization of mass surveillance and the possibility of antidemocratic practices. Recall that under the recent Park Geun Hye administration, the government and intelligence agencies investigated and surveilled private citizens critical of the government and made blacklists just a few years back. There is always the possibility that the country’s enormous database system and advanced surveillance technology can be put in the hands of a less democratic and less accountable government in the future.
The current pandemic moment raises critical questions about the relationships among emergency measures, political surveillance and monitoring, and democratic governance. While temporary harsh measures may be accepted widely during a crisis, it is also possible for authoritarian leaders to take advantage of this kind of emergency for their own political ends. What is happening in China, Hungary, and Russia reinforces this concern. The ways in which surveillance techniques and infrastructures are addressed and what sort of consensus citizens will form on these issues in liberal democracies, including South Korea, are, of course, different from those in less democratic countries. It will be a challenging task for any democratic country to pursue both public health and individual rights in the post–Covid-19 era. A government’s strong commitment both to protecting public health and to dealing with private information with utmost caution will be necessary. Strict legal procedures should be stipulated clearly, in a way to restrict a government’s reckless collection of private information. The usage of private information should be limited solely to containing the epidemic, and the collected information should be immediately discarded to avoid its use for other purposes.
While a government’s commitment to protecting democratic institutions and norms is important, civil society should also monitor its government’s actions closely. Advanced ICT is available not only to governments, but also accessible by ordinary citizens. Thus, monitoring is not unidirectional but can take place in both ways. Civil society organizations and NGOs should play an important role in pressuring governments to be politically accountable and responsible. There must be deep conversations about how to place a surveillance system under scrutiny and how to best protect both public health and privacy.
→Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, “MOFA Insight Series Episode 1 – Guy Sorman Speaks on Post-Corona Era: ‘Culture and Society,’” May 11, 2020.