Tag Archive | "social issues"

Corporate Market Power And Consumer Rights

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • Pointing to the fact that large foreign firms are allowed to sell used cars in Korea, domestic carmakers called for an end to restrictions on their participation in this market space.
  • The Ministry of SME’s and Startups is reportedly looking into allowing conglomerates to reenter the used car market under specific conditions.
  • 51.6% of the public is in favor of allowing conglomerates to participate in this market.

Implications: South Korean policymakers are forced to weigh between the ability of conglomerates to deliver better consumer services and the prerogative of protecting SMEs. The used car market of USD 23 billion could be quickly swallowed up by conglomerates who will likely use price competitiveness to drive out smaller competitors. Moreover, consumers have expressed frustration with the disparate pricing practices of various SME players in the market. As a result, there is widespread expectation that the entry of conglomerates into the market will not only lower prices but also increase standards. However, policymakers worry that this will help further concentrate corporate dominance over the Korean economy with potential long-term consequences on employment.

Context: Six conglomerates make up more than 70% of Korean exports. These vertically-integrated corporations also channel businesses to their subsidiaries, promoting their growth while pushing out smaller competitors. In 2011, the Fair-Trade Commission (FTC) reported that conglomerates composed nearly half of Korea’s manufacturing industry and generated 33.8% of total industry profit. In this environment, SMEs are limited in both domestic and international growth. This lopsided relationship has major consequences for employment as 80% of the labor force is in a SME. In response, the FTC has been regulating corporate expansion since 2013 – but in areas like the used car market, the poor price competitiveness and services by SMEs have led to a consumer backlash.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Sophie Joo, Sonia Kim, and Chris Lee.

Picture from the flickr account of Stephan

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South Korea’s Response to Migrant Farm Worker Crisis

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • On July 29, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun announced that the government will “push for measures to lengthen the stay permits for foreign laborers” to combat worker shortages in agricultural areas.
  • Many workers already in Korea are unable to return home due to Covid-19, and none of the 5,000 seasonal migrant workers that farms requested through a government program have been able to arrive.
  • Simultaneously, South Korea is pushing ahead with changes to its long-term visa system that disadvantage low-income workers in favor of attracting a “superior pool of foreigners.”

Implications: When it comes to immigration, South Korea’s policymakers are advancing policies that do not reflect the new reality created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The current labor shortage on South Korean farms has laid bare the contradiction between South Korea’s changes to its long-term residency visa, which will go into effect on Dec. 1, and the reality of high demand for unskilled workers in industry and agriculture. Despite fierce competition from highly-educated Koreans for well-paid jobs in government and large corporations, the visa changes will make it easier for highly-paid professionals to stay in South Korea while making it harder for much-needed migrant laborers to continue to stay in the country. If a reassessment of this visa change does not occur, undocumented immigrants may continue to fill South Korea’s worker shortage.

Context: South Korean agriculture has long depended on migrant workers from other parts of Asia to fill the labor gap in the country’s aging countryside. The pandemic’s effect on the flow of seasonal migrants became clear earlier this year, but the situation has become more pressing as the harvest season approaches. Despite this long-standing labor shortage in both the agricultural and industrial sectors, the government’s changes to the points-based F-2-7 long-term residency visa make it much more difficult for foreigners without high-paying jobs or university degrees to stay in South Korea long term. This visa allows some immigrants to stay in South Korea for up to five years, but the duration of stay allowed depends on points awarded. Those with low incomes may receive F-2-7 visas that are valid for less than a year.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of James Constant and Sonia Kim.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

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Ongoing Struggle to Address Mental Health

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • On July 22, the Ministry of Health and Welfare underscored findings that South Korea’s life expectancy rate (82.7) was above the OECD average (80.7).
  • However, the OECD survey also found that fewer Koreans felt healthy (32%) compared to the OECD average (67.9%). This stood in contrast to results from the United States where 87.9% of people felt healthier despite higher morbidity and lower life expectancy (78.7).
  • These survey results point to a quandary in South Korea’s health policy as the country enjoys good outcomes (160.1 cancer deaths per 10,000 vs. OECD average of 195.8) but negative public responses.

Implications: The gap between health outcomes and public sentiment may point to South Korea’s underinvestment in mental health. Notably, the country still suffers from a high suicide rate (23 per 100,000) that stands in stark contrast with other OECD member countries with lower health outcomes. For example, 4.3 in every 100,000 people commit suicide per year in the United States. While this represents a major improvement from 2014 when these figures stood at 29.1 per 100,000, South Korean government statistics released in 2017 found that at least 1 in 4 Koreans experience a mental disorder at least once in their life, but only 1 in 10 of affected people pursue professional help.

Context: South Korean societal norms make it difficult for people suffering from mental and emotional stress to seek help. There are fears that search for treatment might place a scarlet letter on not only one’s public image, but also the reputation of their family and broader social circles. Adding to this challenge, there perception that mental illness and violent crimes are closely tied – a consequence of Korean courts placing a spotlight on psychological illness as a motivating factor behind dramatic acts of violence.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of James Constant and Sonia Kim.

Picture from flickr user YJ-Lee

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Lessons from Korea’s Struggle to Reform its Prosecutors’ Office

By James Constant

While competing bills for national police reform appear stalled in a divided U.S. Congress, South Korea’s long-awaited overhaul of its law enforcement system appears closer than ever to becoming reality. The push by the Korean government to curb the authority of the prosecutors’ office can provide a useful lens to examine current efforts in the United States to abolish or reform the police. Following the Korean model, U.S. reformers should clearly identify national or local institutions that can assume some of the authorities currently held by the problematic institution – and advance legislation to devolve powers with the maximum political mandate.

Korean prosecutors have long served as the country’s most powerful law enforcement agency, far eclipsing the power of its peers in most other countries. They hold the sole power to investigate and indict suspects, with the police directly subservient to their authority.

Similar to the police in the United States, a significant segment of the Korean population distrust prosecutors. Several key incidents have led to the institution losing the public’s confidence. Last year, the prosecutors’ office admitted to systematically obstructing investigations into a forced labor camp in Busan where hundreds of people died and were tortured during the authoritarian rule of President Chun Doo-hwan in the 1980s.

President Moon Jae-in’s mentor, former President Roh Moo-hyun, attempted to reform the institution in the mid-2000s. After his term in office, Roh committed suicide during a corruption probe led by prosecutors, which many progressives see as having been politically motivated. Scholars have also argued that “since the transition to a formal democracy in 1987, the public prosecution service has been a source of some of the most serious impediments to the development of democratic quality as measured by the criterion of rule of law.”

In response, Moon and the ruling Democratic Party have advanced efforts to redistribute the prosecution’s powers. Although the drive for reform looked badly battered – especially amid scandals involving his former Justice Minister, which dropped Moon’s approval ratings to an all-time low of 39 percent – the ruling party’s landslide victory in the April legislative elections mobilized sufficient political capital to finalize the reforms.

The Korean prosecution reform plan involves moving much of the prosecution’s investigative responsibility to the police and establishing a new agency focused on investigating government corruption. In order to prevent the police from abusing their newfound authority, the now-centralized National Police Agency’s powers will be partially shifted to local control.

This idea of shifting power from the discredited institution to a new organization or one with a better reputation has a clear parallel in the American police reform movement. The call for police defunding in the United States is broadly accompanied by calls for reinvestment in mental health and anti-homelessness programs, education and other social services – in short, devolving more social responsibility to other institutions better suited to address prominent social woes.

Just as prosecution reform in Korea is principally driven by progressives, opinions around police reform in the United States are divided along partisan lines. A June ABC News/Ipsos poll found that while 55 percent of U.S. Democrats supported the movement to defund the police and 59 percent supported redirecting money to other social services, 89 percent of Republicans opposed defunding police and 86 percent were against redirecting funds. As a result, the divided legislature will have difficulties advancing reforms, with neither able to garner significant bipartisan support.

Similarly, Korean conservatives launched an all-out assault last year on the Democratic Party’s reform drive, occupying the National Assembly, holding hunger strikes, and filibustering to prevent the passage of key bills. They also looked to remove the justice minister appointed by President Moon. A KBS poll from late 2019 showed support for prosecution reform was highest in the progressive-leaning Jeolla region, while the traditionally conservative southeastern Gyeongsang provinces showed the most opposition.

However, the overwhelming victory of Korea’s Democratic Party in the April legislative elections has given the liberals a strong mandate to follow through on prosecution reform and bypass conservative opposition. The passage of any remaining bills now looks like a mere formality, and the Democratic Party announced on June 29 that it would push ahead with the creation of its new anti-corruption office in July with or without cooperation from other parties.

If one party wins the presidency and a commanding legislative majority in the U.S. elections this November, then it’s not difficult to imagine police reform measures becoming similarly inevitable. Both U.S. parties have already clarified their priorities in the competing House and Senate reform bills – what’s necessary is a broader legislative mandate on either side.

The Korean example indicates that while robust reform of a flawed law enforcement system is possible, it is dependent on the consolidation of power by the ruling party and the careful selection of institutions that will be in charge of the prosecution’s former powers. Whether the United States will follow the Korean lead looks to be dependent on the November elections and the clear delineation of which organizations can take responsibility for some duties currently handled by the police.

James Constant is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is an MA candidate in East Asian Studies at Leiden University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Picture from an article published in The Investor on July 10, 2017

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Partisan Divide On Legacy of Wartime Sexual Slavery

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • A former “comfort woman” alleged that an NGO dedicated to advocating for victims of sexual slavery misappropriated funds. The former head of the organization is now a National Assembly delegate for the Democratic Party.
  • Democratic Party leader Lee Hae-chan was careful to not publicly criticize the NGO while many conservative-leaning media outlets called for a probe.
  • During a meeting with the leadership of the opposition United Future Party on May 28, President Moon Jae-in reiterated that the 2015 agreement between Korea and Japan on wartime sexual slavery was one-sided.

Implications: A partisan divide has appeared in discussions involving the legacy of sexual slavery during World War II, which increasingly colors the issue as a domestic political issue as well as a challenge in Korea-Japan relations. This is most evident in media coverage of the controversy. According to Mediatoday, conservative-leaning Chosun Ilbo published 22 articles about the allegations of misappropriation, which is approximately 2~3 times more than other media outlets. By comparison, progressive-leaning Hankyoreh published seven articles. Moreover, some of the articles presented a defense of the NGO.

Context: In 2015, the conservative Park Geun-hye administration made an agreement with Japan on compensation for the victims of military sexual slavery during World War II. In return, the Korean government promised not to litigate the issue again. The conservative media characterized the agreement as meaningful. However, then-Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in called the agreement invalid because the National Assembly did not ratify it. In addition, he accused the Park Geun-hye government of not reflecting the victims’ views. According to a 2016 opinion poll, 56% of respondents believed that the Park administration’s agreement with the Japanese government was wrong.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from flickr user Lindsey Turner

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Precarity of Irregular Workers

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • Family members of workers who died in a recent warehouse blaze are expected to be minimally compensated since most of the victims were workers without full-time contracts.
  • The Ministry of Employment and Labor reported that workers with part-time contracts were losing jobs at a rate 70 times greater than that of workers in full-time positions.
  • On May 1, the presidential office proposed expanding unemployment insurance to all of the economically-active citizens, including self-employed and part-time laborers.

Implications: South Korea’s social safety net remains fragile as only half of the country’s workforce is eligible to receive unemployment insurance. Day laborers are a particularly vulnerable cohort as they are excluded from unemployment benefits but are most heavily exposed to layoffs in the post-COVID economic slump. A deadly warehouse fire also brought attention to the fact that these irregular workers receive less public assistance when they are victims of workplace accidents. In response, the Moon administration has proposed expanding unemployment insurance, alongside other measures.

Context: Advocates have called for the expansion of unemployment insurance since the early 2000s. A revision to the Employment Insurance Act was proposed in 2018, which would cover workers with different types of employment contracts and artists. However, the revision failed to move forward because it faced opposition from the business community. However, economic hardships brought on by COVID-19 are bringing attention to the disproportionate pains that will be felt by irregular workers.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from flickr user Arnaud Matar

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The Impact of Covid-19 in South Korea

By Emanuel Pastreich

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Seoul Station was the rows of masks to prevent the spread of COVID 19 set up in the middle of the enormous atrium above the train tracks. I found masks with the likes of all the Korean cartoon characters developed by NAVER, mixed together with innovative masks with holes that allow the user to drink through a straw, or with a detachable bottom section that allowed one to eat a cookie while being safe.

The degree of cooperation with government authorities and the sense of mutual solidarity displayed by citizens is impressive. Although I personally was a bit skeptical about the importance of everyone wearing a mask, the coordination between government, hospitals and citizens to pursue a common goal was unlike anything I had seen elsewhere. I only wished that such a spirit carried over to the campaigns to end the use of plastic, or of coal, in South Korea.

You cannot get away from about the topic of COVID-19 when speaking with Koreans. Even young children seemed to have considerable knowledge about the nature of the disease and its impact on the economy.

All public officials wear white masks on television, as often do TV news anchors, as part of an effort to inspire awareness. There is tremendous social pressure to wear a mask and evince solidarity in response to this national crisis—some parts of which I felt went too far in terms of social shaming.

One can see a clear parallel to the collecting of gold by private citizens during the 1997 IMF crisis as part of an effort to restore Korea’s financial security. Or to the rush of Koreans from across the country to the beaches at Taean after the oil spill of 2007 to engage in a massive effort to clean by hand the rocks and the sand covered with the sludge that had washed up. In both cases, the overall impact of the citizens’ movement was limited in its practical application. The gold collected from citizens was not decisive in the negotiations on the IMF deal and the loving efforts to clean the beaches did not restore the ocean’s ecosystem. Yet those efforts did have a powerful impact on the awareness of Koreans of their role as citizens, as have the current work of Koreans to control this COVID-19 outbreak.

Whereas in other countries there has been tremendous concern that the response to COVID-19 of quarantine and social distancing will be abused by powerful forces, in Korea the general population has been willing to set aside politics and work with government in good faith. There is a general faith, which I think is well-founded, that things will return to normal after this crisis.

Also impressive were the many doctors who worked 24 hours a day in Daegu and elsewhere to respond to the need of the sick. Citizen volunteers were also numerous, some of who became ill in the process. There was the potential to mobilize citizens because of a basic sense of trust in government and in other citizens.

South Korea’s coordination between government, hospitals, medical professionals and citizens to rapidly identify cases of COVID-19 and to respond quickly made a tremendous difference in Daegu. Workers at companies and factories willing to work all night to produce masks, ventilators and other critical devices. Profit ceased to be a concern. The processing of data was especially rapid and focused-taking advantage of Korea’s strengths in IT. South Korea developed testing kits for COVID-19 of high quality in a short period of time, some of which may be models for future pandemic responses globally. I received numerous calls from friends in the United States asking me to introduce experts on testing in South Korea and one Korean firm that asked me how they could introduce their test into the United States. The convergence of policy, technology, expertise and behavior modification by citizens is what sets South Korea apart from other countries.

The crisis has led to a healthy questioning of the medical field in the media as well. Attention has been brought to the importance of public health which contrasts with the obsession with medical tourism and the ability of specialized medical fields like plastic surgery to generate income.

The issue of diet and the immune system also has been brought up more frequently in the media, although not anywhere enough. Sadly, the need to strengthen the immune system by eating nutritious vegetables and fruit, and avoiding processed foods with high sugar and sodium content was not a priority in the rush to wear masks.

The impact of COVID-19 on youth has been tremendous because of the overwhelming importance of educational preparation in the lives of Korean youth Kim Seong-gi, retired news anchor at KBS spoke vividly about the complex shifts in the lives of youth that have resulted,

“The disruption of education has been profound, leaving students waiting until April to start school. This has caused tremendous chaos in South Korea, but it has also brought families together, spending more time with each other than they would otherwise. The sense of community was not always disrupted by social distancing. In some respects it was reinforced.”

Kim spoke about his daughter’s experience with deep concern. She runs an art academy for children that developed out of her deep concern for the education of youth. But her academy has been completely shut down and there is great uncertainty concerning when it will open again. Almost all Koreans had a similar story to tell and I was reminded of the broad impact on the economy I saw when living in Seoul during the IMF crisis.

Korea is full of small businesses: small restaurants, computer repair, coffee shop, and study aids. If they are lost, the economy will lose its diversity and much of the population will be pushed to the edge.

I had a chance to get a spiritual perspective on COVID-19 when I visited   Mihwangsa Temple in Haenam, and met with Abbot Geumgang Sunim. Hidden away deep in the mountains, but with a spectacular view of the coast where Admiral Yi Sunsin fought against a massive Japanese naval fleet to achieve a tremendous victory.

Abbot Geumgang Sunim remarked, “Korean society has been crippled by a individualistic perspective over the last few decades of consumption culture. Food, transportation and trade link us together but we did not know how. I think this COVID-19 crisis will serve as a chance for us to understand better how our politics and our economy work, and to reaffirm our role as members of a common society. We learned about hardship and shortages, but we also learned that there many things we did not really need.”

The Korean Model

Korea has emerged as a model for how industrialized nations can respond to pandemics in a human and scientific manner. Already Canada has engaged in a careful study of Korean best practices and is most likely be but the first of many countries to do so.

Korea avoided complete lockdowns like China but was still able to take aggressive measures without the risk of serious political abuse of government’s new-found powers.  Public transportation and many forms of online discourse continued on unaffected. I was stopped repeatedly for a test of my body temperature and would have been further tested had I been running a fever. I did not find those efforts invasive or threatening in any sense. If anything, they suggested a society deeply concerned with the welfare of citizens. Government offices and other public spaces were rendered as testing centers and quarantine spaces rapidly without any lack of transparency.

Emanuel Pastreich is the President of The Asia Institute and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Park-Keun-Hyung’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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Blind Spot in South Korea’s E-Governance

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

Implications: The government’s growing reliance on digital platforms may marginalize senior citizens who lack digital fluency. Public health response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has elevated this issue to the forefront. Living up to its reputation as a country at the forefront of e-governance, the South Korean government is using various digital tools to fight the ongoing pandemic. Digital platforms have helped improve transparency and deliver more information to the public. However, the growth in information accessibility was uneven, almost exclusively favoring tech-savvy younger generations.

Context: While the government has been more transparent about developments regarding the ongoing coronavirus outbreak than in past public health crises, the gap in the amount of information that different generations are able to access is wider than during the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015. The 2019 National Statistics Report found that South Koreans over the age of 70 could only navigate 26% of the digital tools that an average Korean uses. This puts seniors who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus at a huge disadvantage. Older generations still rely mostly on national emergency text alerts, while younger generations are more flexible about consuming information from other digital sources.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from user Bridget Coila in Flickr.

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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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