Tag Archive | "healthcare"

Flooding and COVID and Sanctions! Oh My! Are These Problems Behind Changes in the DPRK News Format?

By Robert R. King

From July 25 to August 26 Kim Jong-un convened three high-level meetings of the Worker’s Party Politburo—an unusual display of urgency by the North Korean leader.  Only four such meetings were held in the previous six months of this year.

The problems Kim and North Korea are facing seem to be particularly daunting.  Flooding from monsoon rains and two typhoons have drenched North Korea in the last five weeks.  The Monsoon rains of early August caused landslides and floods which damaged 100,000 acres of farmland (151 sq. miles), some 16,000 households were affected, and the reported death toll was 22.  As that disaster ended Typhoon Bavi (No. 8 in North Korea’s typhoon numbering system), struck western North Korea on August 26.  On Kim Jong-un’s inspection tour following Bavi, he announced that there was minimal damage—flooded fields, damaged corn and beanstalks, washed out roads and damaged power lines, but not as bad as it might have been.  (It was a category 1 hurricane equivalent when it made landfall.)  But on top of the serious monsoon rains, it was certainly not welcomed.  The first week of September things got worse, typhoon Maysak (No. 9) hammered the Korean Peninsula, producing additional heavy rains in the North. Wonsan on North Korea’s southeast coast faced a deluge of over 5 inches of rain (132 mm) in only three hours.  Kim Jong-un was there a few days later inspecting the damage, apparently including “dozens of casualties.”  Again in the search for scapegoats, he fired the provincial party leader in the hardest hit area and ordered twelve thousand core party members to join the recovery effort and promised “grave punishment” of local officials.  The problems may not be over yet, however, as another typhoon (Haishen—Typhoon No. 10) is headed up the Korean Peninsula with another round of heavy rains.

Then, of course there is the plague—the COVID-19 virus.  North Korean officials continue to claim that the country is totally COVID-free, but little testing and government policy to cover up any cases that might have occurred may well be the explanation.  The extent of official concern is reflected in the harsh effort to quarantine immediately any individuals with potential cases of the virus.  The “re-defection” of a North Korean defector who illegally fled to South Korea but three years later illegally crossed the border returning to the North led to the total quarantine of the city of Kaesong which lasted over a month.  The scope and zeal of the enforced quarantine in Kaesong indicates the intensity of the North Korean effort to deal with the COVID pandemic.  The poorly-funded and under-staffed medical infrastructure in the North is heavily dependent on World Health Organization programs and non-government humanitarian assistance to deal with many of its most troubling medical problems.  If the COVID pandemic gets out of control, the consequences in the North could be massive and tragic.

The third challenge currently facing the North is the impact of economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs which are seen as a threat to international peace and security.  Those sanctions have the support of China and Russia, as well as the United States and other Security Council member countries, and all UN member countries are obligated to follow them.  The COVID pandemic has heightened the impact of the sanctions.  Because of the concern for the spread of the pandemic, North Korea has tightened its border with China to prevent illegal border crossing and illegal importation of goods because of the fear that this will bring the dreaded virus into the North. Though, some state sanctioned smuggling is still allowed. Earlier when the border with China was more porous, sanctioned goods from China were illegally smuggled into the North and that eased the economic impact of UN sanctions.  Now that the border on both sides is more tightly guarded to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the sanctions are much more effective.

In a Party Central Committee session held in mid-August, the North Korean leadership confirmed that plans to improve the national economy have been “seriously delayed” by “severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges.”  A party congress has been scheduled for January to deal with the consequences of the flooding, the pandemic and the economic consequences of the sanctions.  Party congresses are infrequent events and they have taken place in the past only when there was some urgent need.  That last Congress held in 2016 confirmed the succession of Kim Jong-un, and the Congress before that was held 26 years earlier.

Media Coverage of Typhoon Bavi Showed Major Changes

As Pyongyang has attempted to deal with these increasingly complex challenges, a particularly significant change in the format of media reporting (particularly television) took place.  As Typhoon Bavi approached North Korea’s west coast, the principal official Korean Central Television (KCTV) channel took the unprecedented action of broadcasting through the night.  Martyn Williams with the Stimson Center notes that this was the first time KCTV broadcast around the clock for a full uninterrupted 24 hours.

The standard KCTV schedule begins in the afternoon and ends in the late evening, and follows a rigid predictable schedule.  Broadcasting begins with the national anthem, followed by hymns of praise to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.  The presenter then gives the program schedule.  Any news relating to Kim Jong-un comes next followed by other news and then entertainment programming.  On Thursday, August 26, as Typhoon Bavi approached the North Korean coast, even before the program schedule was given, a report from the weather service gave information about the impending landfall of the typhoon.

The other unusual change in television programming that day was on-the-scene reporting on the typhoon.  North Korean TV seldom broadcasts live reports from journalists in the field.  On August 26 several weather updates were broadcast from a reporter at the State Hydro-Meteorological Administration and other live reports were broadcast with journalists sheltering under umbrellas and standing in front of damaged buildings and uprooted trees.  Previously the format for North Korea’s main television news program has been a mature woman in a traditional hanbok (the traditional Korean dress for formal occasions) with the image of Mount Paektu in the background.

The Kim family has paid particular attention to managing the media, and there is every reason to believe that this noteworthy change in television format was done at the direction of Kim Jong-un.  It is not clear whether this was a “one-off” format change, or whether this is a new inclusion of journalists reporting on the spot will be used again in similar unusual circumstances, which would bring North Korean media more in line with other international news media practice.  The day immediately after the unusual programming began in connection with Typhoon Bavi, Korean television reverted to the standard format, apparently with no comment about the dramatic change in the look and feel of the news reports the previous day.  Just a few days later, however, when typhoon Maysak dumped heavy rains on Wonsan, local television again aired live footage of damage.

Why the Change?

North Korean leaders are acutely aware of the technology and programming practices of news media elsewhere in the world because foreign radio and some television broadcasts do reach the North.  It is illegal for North Koreans to watch any foreign news or entertainment—even the brotherly Korean-language broadcasts in China which can be heard and seen in North Korean areas near the Chinese border.  North Koreans want information from beyond their border, and they access foreign broadcasts and other foreign media even though it is difficult to get and carries a significant risk of punishment if North Koreans are caught viewing or listening to foreign media.

Along the border with China, North Koreans can watch Chinese Television in the Korean language.  These broadcasts are produced for the Korean-speaking population in China, so they are not specifically directed at the North, but Chinese television is better technically and programmatically than North Korean media.  Furthermore, South Korean media, including popular K-pop and soap opera entertainment, is available in the North on the black market on USB drives.

With this competition from more attractive programming from abroad, the Kim government is anxious to make its domestic news and entertainment media better.  It is in competition with illegal foreign media.  If the official approved media is technically better and programming is more interesting, keeping viewers focused on approved North Korean media is much easier.  The official media is not the only game in town, and competition is pushing North Korean television to be better.

A second reason the media may be shifting its programming is to highlight the external forces that are making life more difficult in North Korea.  With flooding, the COVID pandemic, and economic sanctions it is much more difficult for Kim Jong-un to create the “heaven on earth” that North Korea’s ideology promises.

That is particularly difficult because the Kim family leaders are played up in laudatory propaganda as superhuman miracle workers, and Kim Jong-un is certainly part of that mythology.  In December 2017, for example, national video broadcasts show Kim high on Mount Paektu, North Korea’s sacred mountain which plays an important role in the mythology of the Korean people.  In the video, the 9,000 foot mountain was swathed in snow, wind and cold.  In the words of the official film of the event, it suddenly became a “marvelous scene with glee at the reappearance of its great master.”  The mountain showed “fine weather unprecedented” in December.  The KCNA report on Kim’s climb up the mountain said, “His eyes reflected the strong beams of the gifted great person seeing in the majestic spirit of Mount Paektu the appearance of a powerful socialist nation which dynamically advances full of vigor without vacillation at any raving dirty wind on the planet.”

The problem of boasting about supernatural powers is that when things get tough, people may expect the Supreme Leader magically to solve the country’s problems.  It may well be that with flooding, the COVID pandemic, and sanctions to deal with, the leader is using greater honesty in the media to downplay his supernatural powers.  By showing on-the-spot news reports of the impact of the flooding and typhoons, it gives the North Korean people a better sense of the reality and significance of the problems the country is facing.  This may ease expectations for the chief miracle worker.

Further indications that the Leader is concerned about the seriousness of the problems is the fact that the head of the government, Prime Minister, Kim Jae-ryong, was fired at the Politburo meeting on August 13.  The Prime Minister is focused primarily on management of the economy, and his replacement was an obvious indication of dissatisfaction about the economic problems facing the country.  The prime minister was a convenient scapegoat.  Another villain to blame was found in Wonsan after Typhoon Maysak dropped heavy rain on the southeast—the local party leader was fired.

Kim Jong-un announced at the August 13th Politburo meeting that North Korea would not accept flood or COVID pandemic assistance.  Fears that foreign aid workers might bring COVID virus infection was behind the rejection.  Another reason for this strong statement of North Korea’s self-reliance, however, might be that for the sake of appearances it is better preemptively to reject assistance when such help may not be given if it were requested.  South Korea is one of the few possible donors for the North.  The Moon Jae-in government appears to be interested in aid as a way to improve the strained North-South relationship.  On the other hand, the South has been treated poorly by Pyongyang for the last several months, including the overly dramatic blowing-up of the North-South liaison office in Kaesong just a few weeks ago.  There is little chance the United States would offer aid, the World Health Organization is inundated with requests for COVID help from many of the poorest countries in the world, and the pandemic-induced economic downturn throughout the world makes this a very difficult time to be seeking help.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.  

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Traveling During a Global Pandemic: A First Hand Account

By Irene Park

It has been thirteen days since my family and I started a two-week mandatory quarantine placed on all overseas travelers entering Korea. What feels like almost a month ago, my husband, 3-month-old infant daughter and I boarded a noticeably empty Korean Air carrier from Dulles International Airport heading home. Normally, going to Korea would be an exciting chance to catch up with family and friends back at home but this time things would be very different.

Crew members and passengers wore face coverings and cautiously distanced themselves all while trying to appear cool and calm. Korean Air intentionally spread out passengers so no two strangers would be seated next to each other and passengers took caution by talking less and minimizing restroom breaks. Although it was comfortable and safe having lots of empty seats around us, the sight of stoic faces, half-covered with masks, was a reminder of the gravity of the global pandemic. Passengers were allowed to remove masks only at meal time and those brief moments were liberating because it felt as if things were normal.

At some point during the flight, flight attendants handed out three separate forms requiring information about our current health condition and place of residency during our stay in Seoul. Once we arrived to Korea, we went through temperature screening and had to fill out several more forms asking for the same information to submit to all agencies involved in monitoring our status and whereabouts. In addition, we were required to install a Coronavirus self-diagnosis application on our personal cell phones. Volunteer staff from the army reserve were there to guide us through the app and also double check our emergency contact numbers to confirm where to find us in case we went missing.

After passing through customs and baggage claim, our next task was to confirm transportation to my house. Unless a family member drives over to pick you up, all travelers have to book a government-issued taxi and drivers must be present at the arrival gate wearing an official tag approved by on-site Health Ministry staff.

The driver who took us home reminded us to visit the nearest community health center to get tested for COVID-19 within three days of arriving to Korea. The next day we went to a testing facility, which was a makeshift clinic in front of the community health center where staff in full hazmat gear were diligently conducting temperature checks and collecting nasal and throat swabs. Paper work and testing combined took about 15 minutes and we received the results the following day via text message that read “your test result is negative, however, please remain in self-isolation for the duration of your quarantine.” We were also told to revisit the health center within three days of completing the quarantine for a second round of testing.

During quarantine, we had to log our daily self-diagnosis – once in the morning at 10am and once in the evening at 8pm – through the app. Additionally, we were assigned to a local administrative staff whose duty was to call in everyday mid-afternoon to check for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 such as fever or chills, cough, sore throat, and shortness of breath. If we happened to skip a daily log, miss a daily check-up call, or leave the cell phone in one place for too long, a text message notification would prompt us to check in with the supervisor and report your current location.

In all honesty, self-isolation was the hardest part out of everything we had to go through. The flight, taxi service, self-diagnosis app, and testing were inconvenient, however, being in isolation was daunting. Not being able to leave the house and meet with people began to create a certain level of anxiety and uncertainty about what would happen once we were free to move around. Everyday my husband and I would read up on the local news about a possible second wave of infections in Korea and discuss what we should or should not do once the quarantine was over. Towards the end of the two-week period, we started to realize that for us life after quarantine would basically stay the same as life in quarantine, and that the “Corona blues” was a real thing.

Irene Park is Executive Assistant & Office Manager at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Nam-ho Park’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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To Three or Not to Three? South Korea Weighs Raising its Social Distancing Threshold

By Kyle Ferrier

With daily new COVID-19 cases rising to over 400 recently, South Korea finds itself on the brink of a second outbreak of the virus. Looming over the possible outbreak is the government’s decision whether to elevate social distancing measures to contain the spread of infections at the expense of, at least in the short-term, an already struggling domestic economy.

In June, the South Korean government adopted a new three tiered social-distancing system in preparation of a new wave of infections. Currently the country is at level two. These rules cap indoor and outdoor gatherings at 50 people and 100 people, respectively; suspend 11 categories of high-risk facilities such as bars, karaoke rooms, and large after-school academies; and require moderate-risk facilities such as movie theaters and religious establishments to strictly adhere to disease prevention rules. Moving to stage three would effectively be instituting a lockdown. Tier three mandates all schools implement classes online or shut down, both high and medium-risk facilities suspend operations, and all but essential workers are required to work from home. Yesterday, the government decided to stay at level two until at least next Sunday, though they have already ordered schools in Seoul to close temporarily and are considering limiting business hours of restaurants and cafes.

Both the government and public are, of course, highly concerned about the implications of a lockdown. Such a move will undeniably be a significant hit to the economy. It would likely pause or even reverse rising consumer demand in South Korea that was crucial in the second quarter GDP numbers not being as bad as other major economies. From May to June, the economy shrank 3.3% from the first three months of the year, the sharpest fall since 1998. This fall was led by a 16.6% drop in exports as global demand plummeted. The one bright spot in the GDP numbers was the 1.4% increase in private consumption, buttressed by government stimulus, though still only possible with the virus under control. Level three social distancing measures would disproportionately impact the sizeable Korean service industry that is built around face to face contact, but the effects would still ultimately be felt throughout the economy. Additionally, because the epicenter of outbreak is now the capital region – home to about half of economic production – as opposed to the smaller city of Daegu this spring, the slowdown could be more serious.

However, just as the government is considering strict measures to contain COVID-19, so too are they considering ways to soften the economic blow. So far, the National Assembly has passed three supplementary budgets amounting to 59 trillion won ($50 billion) to help stimulate the economy. The latest extra budget passed in early July was 35.3 trillion won and was geared towards helping struggling businesses and keeping people employed, with the government estimating nearly 9 million people would benefit. This week the government and the Democratic Party, holding the majority of National Assembly seats, agreed to continue down the path of expansionary fiscal policy to help keep the economy churning even as the pandemic tries to slow it down. The government has ample fiscal space to keep this spending up and, as the current deadlock in the United States Congress proves, having a favorable political environment for the stimulus is just as important. It is not yet clear how this will manifest in the immediate future in the case of a lockdown, but we should expect more spending on the most vulnerable as well as the possibility of another round of stimulus checks.

Further, despite the short-term fears, it is important to remember dealing with COVID-19 is a marathon, not a sprint. Even with significant progress on major vaccine candidates, all signs currently point to us being over a year away from one being available on the market, and even then it will take more time for it to be more widely available in South Korea. A short-lived and effective elevation to phase three could actually do more to help South Korean GDP this year than the prolonged uncertainty of an outbreak or even another major outbreak itself. As difficult as things may get with a lockdown, if it is deemed truly necessary than the long-run gains should be worth much more than the short-term losses.

Kyle Ferrier is a Fellow and Director of Academic Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from 87ab’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Telemedicine Controversy in Korea

By Randall S. Jones

Covid-19 has had a profound economic and social impact in a number of areas, such as education and travel. Healthcare has also been affected, including a massive spike in the use of telemedicine, which was already used in a large majority of OECD countries, including Japan, as well as in China. However, Korea has not introduced telemedicine, even though it stands out as one of the world’s most wired nations. Telemedicine should be an important component of Korea’s New Deal. As President Moon said in May 2020, “the government will boldly execute the Korean New Deal so that Korea can lead new industries in the fields of digital and distance services”.

Telemedicine can be defined as the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to deliver healthcare at a distance. It allows healthcare, one of the most information-intensive sectors of the economy, to make greater use of information technology. Telemedicine is not limited to physicians; for example, nurse practitioners and clinical psychologists can also use it. Telemedicine includes two distinct aspects:

  • Interactive or real-time telemedicine using direct and synchronous communication between providers and patients.
  • Telemonitoring is the use of mobile devices and platforms to conduct routine medical tests and to communicate the results to healthcare workers. Data on patients, such as pulse, heart rate and blood glucose, can be collected remotely.

Potential benefits of telemedicine

There is growing evidence suggesting that healthcare delivered via telemedicine can be both safe and effective, resulting in better outcomes than conventional face-to-face care in some cases. Telemedicine can also be cost-effective. In a U.S. study, it was estimated that a typical visit to a doctor takes about two hours, including 37 minutes of travel. Of the 84 minutes at the clinic, only 20 minutes is face-to-face with a physician. The opportunity costs for the patient and the economy are very large. In addition, telemonitoring can be used for preventive care that can reduce the number of people requiring hospitalization.

Moreover, telemedicine enhances access to healthcare. Many people do not even make it to a doctor’s office due to various obstacles. In a study of 23 OECD countries, between 11% and 65% of people reported unmet medical needs in 2015-16 due to access barriers, such as waiting times, distance and transportation. Digital technologies thus have the potential to provide greater access to healthcare.

Korea, as a world leader in ICT, is well-positioned to benefit from telemedicine. Its ICT sector is a driver of innovation, and has high shares of value added and employment. Business sector R&D in ICT is high, resulting in more ICT-related patents (as a percentage of total IP5 patent families) than any other OECD country. Korea also outperforms many OECD countries in fixed and mobile broadband networks with very high penetration of fiber in fixed networks and well-developed mobile broadband.

The potential benefits of telemedicine are particularly large in Korea for a number of reasons:

  • Korea faces the most rapid population aging among OECD countries, which will sharply increase healthcare spending. Indeed, the old-age dependency ratio (the ratio of the population aged 65 and over to the population aged 15-64) is currently the sixth lowest among the 37 OECD countries but is projected to be the highest by 2060. Policies, including telemedicine, are essential to enhance the efficiency of healthcare.
  • About a quarter of Korea’s elderly population lives in rural areas. Telemedicine would increase access to healthcare for those who need it most.
  • The number of doctor consultations per capita in Korea was 16.6 in 2018, the highest in the OECD and more than double the average of 7.6 (Figure 1). Replacing some of the in-person visits with virtual consultations would result in large reductions in travel and waiting times.
  • Korea only has 2.3 doctors per 1,000 population in 2017, the third lowest among OECD countries after Turkey and Columbia (Figure 2). That is likely to remain the case as the number of medical school graduates in 2017 was also the third lowest in the OECD (Panel B). The relatively small number of doctors risks leaving some parts of the country with inadequate healthcare, increasing the need for telemedicine. In addition, the greater flexibility of telemedicine could allow better use of doctors’ time.


The coronavirus pandemic has expanded the use of telemedicine in many countries. In Korea, the government has allowed doctors to offer medical services to patients via telephone on a temporary and limited basis since February 2020. Between February 24 and May 31, about 360,000 telemedicine bills were issued by 4,651 hospitals, according to government data. Telemedicine has thus played a useful role in providing treatment while protecting medical staff from being exposed to the virus. Telemedicine will also help prepare for a possible second wave of coronavirus infections. Few cases of misdiagnosis or other problems in the telemedicine consultations have been reported. In addition, a regulatory change introduced on June 25th will allow certain hospitals to provide remote medical services to overseas Korean amid the coronavirus pandemic beginning in September. This exemption will last for two years.


Significant opposition to the introduction of telemedicine in Korea

With the National Assembly beginning its four-year term in May 2020, the government is now discussing the possible introduction of a bill to revise Korea’s Medical Act to allow telemedicine. Yong-beom Kim, Vice Minister of Economy and Finance, said that the Ministry “is sticking to its stance that there is a need to actively review the implementation of telemedicine services”.

However, it continues to face significant opposition from the Korea Medical Association (KMA), which represents some 130,000 physicians, and civic organizations. After the introduction of legislation in 2014 to allow telemedicine, the KMA threatened to strike. Moreover, its cooperation with pilot projects to assess the feasibility of telemedicine has been limited. In 2019, the ruling Democratic Party drafted a bill that called for providing telemedicine services to people on remote islands, prison inmates, deep-sea fishermen and soldiers deployed to hard-to-reach areas, but the bill was not submitted due to strong opposition.

Dae-zip Choi, president of the KMA, said that “We have no choice but to wage an extreme battle if the government pushes for telemedicine because it could undermine the nation’s medical system”. The opposition reflects a number of concerns. First, telemedicine could lead to misdiagnoses and the theft of personal data. Second, it could hurt smaller clinics, which rely on close geographical proximity to their patients and do not have the resources to invest in telemedicine. If telemedicine were allowed, such clinics could be replaced by doctors associated with large, well-known hospitals. The collapse of small clinics would ultimately reduce access for essential in-person healthcare. Third, opponents fear that telemedicine will create a lucrative market for “smart” health technologies that will benefit only those who can afford them. Fourth, there is concern that allowing telemedicine would open the way for for-profit hospitals. Under the Medical Service Act, for-profit hospitals are prohibited.


Telemedicine has the potential to expand access to healthcare, which will help cope with the immediate threat of COVID-19 and improve health outcomes in the long run. Moreover, it can enhance the efficiency of healthcare, helping contain the rise in healthcare spending as the population ages. At the same time, telemedicine may introduce new risks. The guiding principle should be to focus on telemedicine services that improve healthcare quality and provide clear benefits to patients. In sum, telemedicine can help improve equity and efficiency in healthcare, while contributing to the government’s goal of making Korea a “digital powerhouse”.

Randall Jones is a Visiting Fellow at Columbia University and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Graphics by Juni Kim, Senior Manager for Operations and Technology, Korea Economic Institute of America.

Photo from ITU Pictures’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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Drive-Thru Screening Center for COVID-19

By Ingyeong Park

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19, medical staff are contributing creative ideas in overcoming the pandemic. Drive-thru, and walk-thru screening centers for COVID-19 are prime examples.

What is a Drive-Thru screening center for COVID-19

Drive-thru screening centers, which help patients by testing them for the COVID-19 by using their vehicles in the same manner as ordering food at a drive-thru, were initially implemented in South Korea. They reduce the amount of time needed to see a patient and are more efficient than conventional hospital visits since they can test more people. Drive-thru screening also has an advantage since there is a low risk of infection for health workers because they can keep distance from patients. The innovation drew attention from the media and many countries. Currently, it is being implemented in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Denmark, and Belgium, among others. In March 2020, it was also introduced in the medical science journal JKMS(Journal of Korean Medical Science).

The center was suggested by Jin-Yong Kim, who was a doctor for the first COVID-19 patient in South Korea. According to his interview, he came up with the idea of drive-thru testing centers while thinking about how to solve the problem of the need to completely sterilize a conventional testing center after a single examination. Ki-Tae Kwon of the Department of Internal Medicine at Kyungpook National University has tried this method and after his suggestion the local government in Goyang city introduced it.

(Picture: Drive-Through Screening Center for COVID-19: a Safe and Efficient Screening System against Massive Community Outbreak)

According to the medical paper “Drive-Through Screening Center for COVID-19: a Safe and Efficient Screening System Against the Massive Community Outbreak”, the steps at the Drive-thru centers include registration, examination, specimen collection, and instructions. At the entrance, those being tested answer questions about their personal information and symptoms. Then the body temperature is taken and the physician asks additional questions based on the questionnaire. Cell phones are used to prevent the examination from creating direct contact between the inspectors and the patients. The driver slightly lowers the window in the car to allow the specimen to be collected. At the instruction booth, the testees are informed 1) how to recieve the test results, 2) that  they should home quarantine until receiving the test results, 3) and the procedure for notifying healthcare authorities if their symptoms deteriorate.

Each test takes about 10 minutes, which is a third shorter than the conventional screening process. The drive-thru screening centers can manage around 100 tests per day with only four to eight healthcare professionals.

The COVID-19  test costs around 160,000 won ($131.13) and the government will pay for the test if the diagnosis is confirmed.

Limitations of Drive-Thru Screening Centers for COVID-19

According to the medical paper, there are 5 limitations:

  • “A possibility of specimen contamination by the HCWs’(healthcare workers) personal protective equipment(PPE) would be a concern because HCWs do not change conventional PPEs for every testee. And to avoid such possibility, HCWs have to wear an additional disposable apron gown and polyethylene gloves in addition to the alcohol-based hand disinfection for every test.
  • In case of an outbreak during the winter season, protection of HCWs’ from the outdoor atmosphere would be challenging.
  • Prompt subsequent management for the medically unstable testees may be limited if the Drive-thru screening center is located far from hospitals.
  • Only testees with their own cars can visit the Drive-thru screening center.
  • As the barrier is lower than the conventional screening centers, some people may visit different Drive-thru screening center.”

The limitations of a drive-through system can be overcome with a walk-thru screening center. This  method of entering a booth on foot and receiving inspection is more efficient. Sang-il Kim, the head of Yangji Hospital, knew that there are many people who can’t visit the hospital with their cars and came up with a way to create a public phone box-sized facility to be inspected. The government has installed walking booth in Incheon airport and are inspecting for the COVID-19.

Ingyeong Park is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute. Ingyeong is a student at Ajou University, pursuing a degree in Political Science and Diplomacy. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from New York National Guard’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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How South Koreans view Their Government’s COVID-19 Response

By Juni Kim

While much of the world is grappling with the escalating COVID-19 crisis, South Korea has received glowing international media coverage for its domestic campaign to contain the virus and to reduce its death toll. News headlines like “Why South Korea’s COVID-19 strategy is working,” “South Korea shows that democracies can succeed against the coronavirus,” and “How South Korea Flattened the Curve” hold up South Korea as a model to follow in fighting the virus’s spread. In a March 23rd article, The New York Times stated “No matter how you look at the numbers, one country stands out from the rest: South Korea.” World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised South Korea’s efforts last week saying “WHO is working in solidarity with other countries with community transmission to apply the lessons learned in Korea and elsewhere, and adapt them to the local context.”

However, South Koreans have had a more mixed opinion of their government’s COVID-19 response. According to Gallup Korea, overall approval of the government’s containment efforts was reported at 58% for polling conducted on March 10th to the 12th, with 41% of survey respondents expressing disapproval. This is a marked improvement compared to an earlier poll conducted on February 25th to the 27th when approval was at 41% and disapproval at 51%. The February poll was conducted during South Korea’s period of rapidly escalating daily cases.

The difference in approval is largely split along political lines. In the March Gallup Korea poll, approval among respondents that identified with the progressive Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), the party of South Korean president Moon Jae-in, was at 86%. Conversely, respondents that identified with the conservative United Future Party (UFP) polled 22% approval. The February poll also had a partisan split, though with overall lower approval ratings, with 71% approval for DPK respondents and 8% approval for UFP respondents. It is also worth noting that President Moon’s approval ratings over the past two months remain similar to his approval ratings prior to the outbreak. While recent polls suggest a slight uptick in approval (the latest Gallup Korea poll shows his approval at 49%), he has generally polled in the mid-40% range both before and during the crisis. His approval is also sharply divided along party affiliation, with the latest poll indicating 89% approval among DPK respondents and only 7% among UFP respondents.

Justin Fendos, a professor at Dongseo University, has negatively remarked on the politicization of the COVID-19 crisis in South Korea. Writing in a March 10th article for The Diplomat, he stated “I am extremely disappointed by this politicization of the outbreak. I can say with some authority that the negative coverage has started to make my job, and the jobs of my many colleagues, more difficult.” According to Fendos, many elderly South Koreans, who are more likely to be affiliated with the UFP and are also the most vulnerable demographic to the virus, have questioned or dismissed the government’s social distancing and containment protocols. If public trust in the government falters, residents may feel less inclined to comply with government advisories, which may introduce new opportunities for COVID-19 to spread.  For instance, several churches in South Korea have continued to hold physical gatherings despite authorities calling for social distancing, with one church congregation seeing an outbreak of 52 infections and another clashing with police officers.

With legislative elections scheduled to take place on April 15th in South Korea, the partisan divide will likely be further exacerbated as politicians tussle over gaining votes. While such divisions are to be expected during an election year, the COVID-19 crisis adds a complicating dimension to the election run-up. Politicians on both sides should be wary of the potential spread of misinformation that runs counter to fact-based public health recommendations. With many Western nations looking to South Korea for lessons, another one to watch for is how South Korea continues to handle the health crisis while coping with political divisions and upcoming elections.

Juni Kim is the Senior Manager for Operations and Technology at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Graphics by Juni Kim.  Research assistance provided by Park Ingyeong and Jang Hyungim, Interns at the Korea Economic Institute of America.

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

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DPRK Menstrual Health Product Consumer Report

By Andray Abrahamian

Which North Korean brands of sanitary pads are the best? Where can I buy them? What other products are available for next time I’m traveling around the North Korean countryside? How expensive are they?

These are questions you may not have asked yourself. But for North Korean women these are crucial questions that can define opportunities to earn money, to travel, and to feel productive and well.

Coreana Connect has spent several months researching North Korean period products and has turned the findings into a consumer report, with an English version and both a Northern and Southern edition, also.

Feminine hygiene products in North Korea are best described as available but not accessible. The majority of North Korean women use homemade reusable cloth pads, most typically made of gauze or old cloth. Still, some can afford modern products and will spend the money, particularly if they have to be out and about. Various North Korean companies compete for these consumers, who make choices based on price and quality. No tampons, cups or reusable period panties are made in North Korea. Manufactured period products include only one category: pads.

Coreana Connect collected a handful of the most common made-in-DPRK brands, as well as a couple Chinese imported brands. We sent them to a professional paper and textile laboratory to test for two key characteristics: Absorption Before Leakage (ABL) and Multiple Acquisition Time (MAT). The first is a measure of how much liquid a pad can hold before leaking; the latter measures how quickly liquid is absorbed and dried.

We then distributed samples of one of the menstrual hygiene products to a panel of young women, who completed a survey and rated the products in a real-world setting.

Overall, we found that DPRK-produced pads are most comparable to thin or day-use pads sold in western markets. The quality was, frankly, higher than we expected; the variety of brands available was also surprising. The greatest shortcoming of DPRK-produced pads appears to be insufficient adhesive on the back of the pad, leading the pad to shift out of position, causing staining.

We’ll leave the rest of the exciting conclusions for when you download the consumer report for yourself. But this project has made us think about menstruation in North Korea as connected to a number of important issues on which North Korea and the international community could potentially collaborate.

As everywhere, North Korean girls and women need effective and affordable menstrual health products. This is even more true in a resource-scarce society where women are primary earners for many households. Managing periods means having the freedom to travel and work.

Pads are virtually the only manufactured menstrual health product available in the DPRK, but are costly: most brands are roughly equivalent to half a kilogram of rice. They are unfortunately considered a luxury. Projects that lower product costs would be a boon to these women, improving a number of basic human rights.

There is social stigma around periods, but part of this is related to lack of information and of educational resources on the issue. Getting pamphlets into schools, hospitals and workplaces could be hugely beneficial. Coreana Connect was only able to find published materials on periods targeting medical professionals. Education could also include information about alternative, money-saving, sustainable products.

This is still a learning process for us at Coreana Connect, and we’re happy to take advice and input as we consider the best practices and strategies for improving the lives of women and girls in the DPRK.

Andray Abrahamian is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and Visiting Scholar at George Mason University Korea and Senior Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photos from Coreana Connect and Marcelo Druck’s photostream on flickr Creative Comomons.

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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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Korea Unveils Ambitious Plans for “Mooncare”

By Jenna Gibson

While the United States is locked in a fierce debate over Obamacare, South Korea is going through its own deliberations about healthcare reform. On August 9, right before hitting his 100th day in office, Korean President Moon Jae-In unveiled his plan to expand Korea’s already extensive healthcare system, a proposal quickly dubbed “Mooncare.”

Korea currently provides universal healthcare through its National Health Insurance Service. All citizens are required to pay into the fund via taxes, and they are all covered for general medical costs. Private insurance does exist, and people usually purchase those additional policies to cover large medical expenses, such as a major accident or cancer treatment.

One of President Moon Jae-In’s major pledges has been to reform this system, with the particular goal of decreasing costs for low-income patients. Moon’s plan focuses on three major changes: first, he wants to expand the types of procedures covered by the state insurance to eventually encompass all medical treatment except purely optional operations such as non-medically indicated cosmetic surgery. In addition, he plans to lower the cap for out-of-pocket expenses so that low-income Koreans would only have to pay up to 1 million won ($883) per year for their medical care. Finally, he plans to increase emergency financial support for those in the lower half of the income bracket, providing them access to up to 20 million won ($17,663) in case of a major health crisis.

“We will continue to move toward building a fair and just Republic of Korea that will ache when the people ache and will only smile when the people smile,” Moon said at the plan’s unveiling. “We will build a country where every person is free of concern over medical costs and can receive treatment for any disorder without having to worry about expenses.”

However, not everyone is enthusiastic about these sweeping changes. Korea will need 122,164 more nurses, 1,613 pharmacists, and 785 doctors to implement the president’s plan, according to a report from the Ministry of Health and Welfare. And critics have balked at the 30.6 trillion won ($26.9 billion) pricetag for the plan, saying that even if the government covers the increase for now, those costs may eventually be passed back down to taxpayers. This plan fits in with accusations that Moon is becoming a “Santa Claus President” – along with this healthcare plan, Moon has already promised several major welfare reforms including a minimum wage increase and a boost for both pension and child care funding.

Supporters, on the other hand, praise the program’s ambition and its focus on helping low-income Koreans. They also noted that this increased coverage could lead to a boom in the medical and biotech industry.

Moon’s approval rating has remained high, increasing slightly to hit 78 percent in the days following his healthcare announcement. According to a poll conducted on August 18-19, 85.3 percent of Koreans surveys said Moon was doing a good job managing state affairs. According to the Korea Herald, “When asked about having a ‘medium burden, medium welfare’ system in South Korean society, 81.6 percent supported the idea, with more than 75 percent of the respondents saying they are willing to pay more taxes to expand welfare and solve bipolarization issues.”

While Moon will have to carefully manage the significant funding necessary to conduct this and other major upgrades to Korea’s social safety net, it seems he has widespread support among the Korean public to begin moving forward with his ambitious reform agenda.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Image from Republic of Korea Armed Forces’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.