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Interview with Professor Kim Dong-chun – The Coronavirus Crisis as a Wakeup Call for South Korea

KEI Non-Resident Fellow Emanuel Pastreich interviews Professor Kim Dong-chun of SungKongHoe University on the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea

I arrived in Seoul in the midst of swirling concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in South Korea. The previous day I spoke with several Europeans in Tokyo who told me that they had decided to cancel their planned meetings in South Korea at the last moment in light of the ominous reports on the news which was focused on South Korea.

From the moment I arrived at the airport, I discovered that over 80% of the people I met were wearing masks. That was a remarkable achievement, in a sense, of mass mobilization. But I noticed that the taxi driver hung a white mask from the rearview mirror like a magic talisman for our benefit-rather than trying to wear it while driving. The efficacy of those masks remains a matter of considerable debate.

While in Seoul I had a chance to sit down with Professor Kim Dong-chun of SungKongHoe University and discuss the impact of the coronavirus. As the director of the Institute of Korean Democracy Professor Kim has played a central role in addressing social and political challenges in South Korea over the last two decades. His remarks provide vivid details of the larger implications of this health crisis for the country.

Emanuel Pastreich:

What has been the impact on the Korean economy and Korean society of the recent coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Kim Dong-chun:

The contagion is ongoing so we do not know what its final implications will be. Nevertheless we can see from the outbreak in Daegu from the Shincheonji Church of Jesus that their close relations with China as a result of their proselytizing efforts were a major factor-helped by their refusal to be transparent about their actives. We are still learning the details, but it appears that the secretiveness of that group encouraged the rapid spread among its members.

The Shincheonji Church of Jesus is a rather peculiar religious sect. It may have been responsible for acting in an irresponsible manner, but the response against this religious group in the Korean media also suggests an increasingly emotional response to the disease that is also disturbing. This outbreak has significance beyond simply biology.

We have seen the number of people infected rapidly rise. It certainly is possible that the contagion will reach a point at which it becomes uncontrollable.

Moreover the number of hospitals equipped with the facilities necessary to treat patients in isolation, in quarantine, is extremely limited in South Korea. We are entirely unprepared for a major outbreak.

That means that we would have to rely on citizens to place themselves under quarantine, and to treat themselves. Such a policy is far from perfect.

Emanuel Pastreich:

How has isolation and quarantine been carried out so far? I find it hard to imagine South Korea being able to put up a specialized hospital in a few weeks in the manner that China did in Wuhan.

Kim Dong-chun:

The number of doctors with specialized training concerning contagion is quite limited in Korea. In addition, South Korea simply lacks hospitals with the specialized facilities required to properly respond to highly infectious diseases.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Perhaps that is the reason why patients from Daegu were transferred to Seoul for treatment when they should have been treated locally.

Kim Dong-chun:

The mayor of Daegu asked for the help of the central government in the response to this outbreak. The transfer of patients was part of that response. But the exact process by which the central government will cooperate with local government going forward is not clear and will be subject to all sorts of political factors. We need to work with local communities directly, not just subject citizens to frightening news broadcasts. But the severe underfunding of government facilities for dealing with public health issues makes the response much more challenging than it had to be.

Even now, in Daegu, which still has a relatively small number of patients compared with Wuhan, the local government has already reached its limits and can no longer deal with this challenge effectively. But we know that a far more serious epidemic is entirely possible in the future. Korea is entirely unprepared for such outbreaks and policy makers have not made such preparations a priority.

We must remember that the number of public hospitals in South Korea is remarkably low and that public medicine as a whole has been devastated by privatization over the last few decades. The result is that much of the treatment of citizens is handled by private, for-profit, hospitals. Those hospitals are extremely weak when it comes to responding to a contagious disease. They never considered it their responsibility.

Let us not forget that during the Park Eun-hye administration, we had a similar outbreak of MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) and the government response was horribly bungled—in part because experts at private hospitals did not feel they had any responsibility.

Daegu is not prepared to quarantine hundreds of people, let alone thousands, and other local municipalities are not ready either. What if it was necessary to quarantine the entire city, like Wuhan? I do not think we have any plan on the books. It is not even clear which ministry would be responsible.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I think the problem is to some degree linked to the rise of politics as spectacle and the death of administration and governance. We do not need in Korea frightening broadcasts, but rather scientific analysis that is aimed at ordinary citizens and that seeks to inform. Most broadcasts are fundamentally aimed at profits from viewership and they aim to scare and to excite in order to increase their audience.

People were lined up for hours to buy masks yesterday. I could not buy one anywhere. The entire response to a national medical emergency has been left to those who seek to make a profit.

Kim Dong-chun:

This is just the start of the crisis. We are just starting to get a sense of the full economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the Korean economy. The most visible consequence at this first stage is the drastic decline of Chinese tourism in Korea.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I took a walk through Myungdong, Seoul’s tourist shopping district, yesterday. Myungdong was known as a bustling space full of Chinese tourists buying fashionable clothes, cosmetics, Korean Wave souvenirs and eating tasty snacks at the food stands. Over the last decade, Myungdong’s economic engine was powered by an almost endless flow of Chinese tourists with money to burn.

But Myung-dong has become a virtual ghost town. A few Japanese tourists wander here and there, but most of the stores are empty of customers. Moreover, stores that would normally peddle skin lotions and tropical soaps now have their employees out front waving to passersby to stop and buy high-quality masks that promise extra protection. That protection from coronavirus has become the primary source of income for many in a tourist center is a catastrophe.

Kim Dong-chun

Yes. And the supply chains that have been so critical for the success of highly integrated Korean manufacturing centers have been deeply impacted by the outbreak.

Hyundai Automotive, for example, has almost stopped manufacturing because of its reliance on Chinese parts which are no longer available. Smaller firms have gone bankrupt.

Many events in South Korea have been cancelled because of the corona virus scare. People are afraid to go out and meet people in public.

Emanuel Pastreich:

This especially true for the family-run stores that are so critical to Korean society.

Kim Dong-chun:

That is exactly right. It does not take too much to put them out of business. Many small businesses have already gone out of business because they could not complete with larger chains. Those people who once ran their own firms are working now at large-scale supermarkets and duty free stores. But those companies also face big challenges because of the dramatic drop in Chinese tourists and the decision of Koreans to stay at home.

Emanuel Pastreich:

But on the other hand we could say that depending so much on Chinese tourism to support the Korean economy was also problematic, no?

Kim Dong-chun:

That trend was a problem that weakened the Korean economy.

Moreover, we cannot separate the infection from other economic issues. We are at a change in the seasons which makes people susceptible to the flu.

Emanuel Pastreich:

That change in the seasons is unnaturally early because of climate change. Climate, which is linked to Korea’s emissions, and the poor air quality, cannot be separated from the coronavirus crisis.

Kim Dong-chun:

Moreover, many people are working harder, under more stressful environments, and they are not eating sufficiently healthy food. Their immune system is compromised and that make them more susceptible to illness.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Yet, even though everyone is told to wear a mask and wash their hands. The advertising in Seoul promotes fast food, sugary snacks, process foods and alcohol which are terrible for your health and that make you susceptible to illness. It would be better to suggest people eat rice and vegetables, get sufficient sleep and reduce their stress levels. Wearing a mask is only effective for keeping you from spreading your virus to other people. Protecting yourself is done by your immune system.

Kim Dong-chun:

Overall I think the Moon Jaein administration has done a far better job than was the case of the Park administration’s response to the MERS outbreak. We will probably be able to contain the regional outbreak.

Nevertheless, if the infection expands so as to produce large numbers of regional outbreaks over the next few weeks, the situation for Korea could be quite grave.

But let us consider again the economic implications of the outbreak.

Once the smoke has cleared, we are going to see a changed landscape.

Korea has become dependent on imports from China to an excessive degree. At present, any economic disruption in China will have an immediate, even amplified impact here. There is no part of the regional economy that is not tied to China.

We heard how wonderful it would be to have a highly integrated supply chain web that tied Korean firms to China and to Southeast Asia. But that move, although it may have brought profits for some, has created an economic system in which these sorts of disruptions have magnified ripple effects.

If the disruptions of supply chains continue for more than a few weeks, Korea will face an economic crisis beyond anything we have seen in our lifetimes.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Much of the response to the outbreak, whether it is the reports in the media or warnings from the government, or even the discussion among citizens, is not scientific in nature. Where is the scientific preparation of a long-term plan for national response to contagions?

Kim Dong-chun:

That is a good question.

The lack of preparation for dealing with public health issues in a scientific and systematic manner is worrisome.

I just returned from a trip to France.

I did not see anyone, except for Chinese tourists, wearing masks.

By contrast, some 90% of Koreans were wearing masks. But the policy debate was skewed.

A contagious disease is always a potential catastrophe. But the possibility of such an outbreak was known to experts all along. The failure to prepare is a policy issue. Such outbreaks are not 100% preventable, but with good policies and a quick response, they can be controlled. The privatization of Korea’s health system has made the response far more difficult.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I did not see much discussion about free healthcare on TV in Seoul recently. The role of government must be central and all citizens must be entitled to quality treatment.

But the push for a highly integrated economy has been held up a model for the last thirty years. Koreans are told the modernization is a positive and having millions of people flying around from country to country every day is great, no matter what the impact on the climate, or on public health.

Kim Dong-chun:

One big problem going forward will be the status of Chinese foreign students at Korean universities. Coronavirus has delayed classes by over a week and there is some question as to whether all the Chinese students who were supposed to come back from China after vacation will   be able to get their visas and return.

Large Korean universities have between one thousand and three thousand Chinese students. Those students support the universities with their tuition and they fill many of the classes.

Those Chinese students live in boarding houses around the universities, or have their own apartments. But what will happen after this coronavirus scare? Will local residents welcome them back to stay at their homes? There are already problems at university dormitories where it has become difficult for Chinese students to stay.

The Chinese students have been forced to look for housing outside of the university. They are spread out everywhere, making any attempt at an epidemiology survey just about impossible. We have not taken the demographics of Chinese in Korea seriously. We are not prepared to test those Chinese students for coronavirus because we have completely ignored them for years.

At the same time that some Koreans will refuse to rent to Chinese, other Koreans will see their restaurants go out of business if they do not have Chinese students as customers.

Emanuel Pastreich:

If South Korea becomes stricter in issuing visas to Chinese students, that could have considerable impact on universities, no?

Kim Dong-chun:

The impact of a disruption in the supply of Chinese students will have severe implications for some Korean universities. Some may go out of business.

If small regional colleges go belly up because of the lack of Chinese college students, there will no longer be any intellectuals in the countryside. The implications are significant for civil society. Like medicine, education has increasingly reduced to a source of profits.

We do have some outstanding students in engineering and science from China.

Chinese students make a major contribution in the sciences and their loss would have a very negative impact. Many labs will have trouble running without them.

Emanuel Pastreich:

When I taught in Korea I was often involved in efforts to recruit Chinese students. It seemed that Korean universities were determined to pull in Chinese students who would pay tuition but they were less concerned encouraging interactions with Korean students and teachers. In many cases, admission of Chinese students was not so much an opportunity for intellectual exchange between China and Korea as it was a way to get a visa and work in South Korea.

Kim Dong-chun:

There are larger questions beyond the immediate economic and social impact of this outbreak.

If this coronavirus outbreak is the beginning of a series of similar crises, they will have a profound impact on our civilization.

The uncertainty and unease in Korean society today results from the breakdown of traditional social structures, a trend encouraged by the decay of civil society, the community and of family relations. Many elderly live alone in poverty. They are the most likely victims of the outbreak of a disease. But we have not even started to address that social crisis. We do not even know where those impoverished elderly live.

Rather anti-Chinese bias has been stirred up in a negative manner in South Korea, as is the case in the United States and Europe.

There are indications of a bias not just against the religious group, but also against people from Daegu after this recent outbreak there. Such regional sentiments have a long history that is easily exploited for political reasons.

Emanuel Pastreich:

It is sad that we do not have more people coming together in solidarity to respond to this challenge.

Kim Dong-chun:

This outbreak of coronavirus is a tremendous challenge, but it could have a positive effect for Korea over the long term if it is successfully treated.

We may start taking about public health, rather than encouraging hospitals to cater to wealthy customers. That could lead to criticisms of the for-profit medical industry which many Koreans had been willing to assume was an engine for growth.

Revealing the weaknesses in medical practice and health policy revealed by the crisis will lead us to meaningful reform.

During the MERS outbreak in Korea in 2015, elite medical facilities like Samsung Hospital and Seoul National University Hospital, refused to accept patients with MERS who were not their wealthy customers.

But the fundamentals are unchanged.  How can we deal with an epidemic if so much of Korea’s expertise is tracked for the treatment of the wealthy and is unavailable to ordinary citizens?

Privatized medical facilities feel they have no responsibility for health of the community. Public medical facilities that can take in large numbers of citizens for a low cost are absolutely essential for responding to such outbreaks.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Public health clinics have had their budgets slashed and they have become objects for privatization. I did not see any signs up in Seoul telling me which public clinic to go to. I did not see any medical professionals in the streets giving help to ordinary citizens. Such people do not exist anymore in South Korea.

Kim Dong-chun:

We still have public health clinics in Korea, but they lack the specialized doctors with knowledge of contagious diseases.

More importantly, we must redefine the field of medicine so that it is no longer a field meant for a small elite who specialize in profitable fields, but it is rather aimed at the larger needs of society.

Emanuel Pastreich:

What are the best and the brightest among medical students studying today?

Kim Dong-chun:

Many of them chose to go into plastic surgery, or other elective medicine. The health of the general population does not even enter into their calculations.

We should require that private hospitals provide a certain percent of beds for public use. We also can require that they take a certain percentage of poor patients.

Among the students in medical school, we should make sure that medical schools train sufficient numbers of students who will work in public clinics and guarantee that they are well paid for their critical contribution to society. Contagious diseases can only be dealt with if every citizen is entitled to quality care.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I was shocked to find that when I arrived here in Seoul that most of the events I was scheduled to attend had suddenly been cancelled.

Kim Dong-chun:

These days almost all public events have been cancelled. The entire economy seems to have been shut down entirely.

Although the Coronavirus started in China, it will impact the whole world. We are seeing just how weak our civilization focused on industrialization and consumption has become. We took such pride in it in the last century.

We are not prepared at all for real challenges. Instead, we engage in excessive vacations and business travel. We have held up urbanization as a model for better society without any scientific justification. We have centralized medical treatment in large hospitals which in effect help to incubate disease. We treat poorer citizens as if they do not exist. If we are talking about a pandemic, every single citizen is important.


Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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