South Korea’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and how it relates to democracy

What could be South Korea’s secret to a relatively successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic? What factors aided in that response? I would say South Korea’s successful response is due to strong civil society, social capital, and government transparency. These are fundamental components of democracy, as they form the basis of an active civil society.

Initial response

Before explaining the link between the pandemic and democracy, let’s look back at the first wave of the virus. South Korea’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the importance of rapid testing capacity. By prioritizing testing, the South Korean government has developed policies that make testing more accessible to its citizens. South Korea increased physical accessibility by offering free drive-through testing sites, and financial accessibility by lowering transaction costs with their National health insurance (Busby 2020).

Some have noted that during the initial wave of the pandemic 

“testing and treatment in the US has been hampered by a lack of universal health coverage raising questions about whether citizens will avoid testing and put off necessary care to avoid medical bills. South Korea, the government quickly committed to pay for all expenditures related to testing and treatment of COVID-19 patients by having the National Health Insurance cover all hospital bills.” (Busby 2020)

By avoiding unnecessary testing and streamlining response, combined with transparency from the government, which communicated regularly with the public, it enabled effective policy formulation and control. The graph below shows how South Korea was once the most infected country, but with effective governance, it manages to control and contain the virus (Busby 2020).

What is Happening Now?

South Korea is widely praised for its relatively successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to its rigorous contact tracking, extensive testing capabilities, and high compliance level when wearing masks. The country of 51.80 million people had 76,429 cases and 1,378 deaths as of January 27 (HyunJoo Yang, 2021).

Despite such a relatively successful response South Korea has not begun administering vaccinations.

Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) announced the week of January 8th that vaccinations will start late February. “We are aiming to achieve herd immunity by this November by vaccinating more than 60-70% of the population. Most other nations are also expecting herd immunity around the third and fourth quarter of this year,” she said Friday in response to questions at the National Assembly” (HyunJoo Yang, 2021).

People undergo COVID-19 tests at a coronavirus testing site which is temporarily set up in front of a railway station in Seoul, Dec. 21, 2020.PHOTO: People undergo COVID-19 tests at a coronavirus testing site which is temporarily set up in front of a railway station in Seoul, Dec. 21, 2020.

According to the Washington Post, South Korea, which saw a major outbreak in prisons in December, has as of now introduced strict new covid measures for inmates but has not yet begun mass vaccination, inside or out from prisons. South Korea’s Office for Disease Prevention and Control has announced that prisoners and adults aged 50 to 64 may be among the first groups to be vaccinated when the program begins (Berger 2021).

How does it relate to democracy?

In the United States, there have been two major responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in all 50 states. The first response has been doing nothing, as proven by Florida. The other response is the opposite with draconian measures, such as California and New York, which have set strict guidelines to combat the pandemic. 

South Korea has not used any draconian methods nor failed to come up short. 

“They used national level, non-mandatory social distancing recommendations, except for the executive order on banning the services of Shincheonji. They strongly asked for voluntary social distancing including working at home and avoiding large gatherings. The only mandatory requirements were school and daycare center closures” (Busby 2020).

South Korea’s response demonstrates the value of Civil Society and Social Capital in democracy. Their efficient response was also possible because of South Korea’s high social capital and large Civil Engagement. In chapter 11 of Democratization social capital is defined as “the connection among people that results in the creation of norms of cooperation and trust and all together constitute a resource which individuals and communities can use for their benefit” (Letki 2018, 160). Essentially, social capital is defined as participation in society and the connections between individuals that contribute to creating norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness in government and others. Civil society is defined as the part of society that is organized and active, but largely independent of government markets.

Why do Civil Society and Social Capital matter to democracy?

Civil Society and Social Capital are important because they form the basis of an active civil society. These qualities of democracy help facilitate coordination and communication. Which are essential for planning coordinated efforts to combat the pandemic. Civil society and social capital also amplify the voices of groups and individuals and educate people in social and organizational skills, helping to develop habits of collaboration. This then influences people to start thinking as a community: ‘I’ becomes ‘us’, and that makes reputation important – meaning that people are less likely to break laws and regulations. 

Vice minister of foreign affairs, Lee Tae-ho, told reporters that openness and transparency builds “public trust” and leads to “a very high level of civic awareness and voluntary cooperation that strengthens our collective effort to overcome this public-health emergency” (Tharoor 2020). 

The South Koreans essentially followed the government’s rules and guidelines as they understood the benefits for the community and they had trust in the government. To suggest that the United States has poor civil society and social capital is not far from the realm of reality, since to this day some people think that the pandemic is a hoax, but that is a topic for another paper.

That said, countries with poor civil society and social capital are generally less tolerant of other people’s political attitudes, way of life and different races, creating polarization and strong partisan ties that erode the integrity of a nation’s democracy. Individuals with high social capital are likely to have established standards of mutual responsibility, social trust in others, which makes them more likely to cooperate and comply with the law. Individuals also are likely to have the highest educational level. Thus a nation with high social capital and civil society will have the best response to the pandemic and will produce the best outcome as South Korea has. Therefore, high social capital and engaged civil society, coupled with effective, efficient, and transparent governance, enabled a relatively successful response to COVID-19.

Edwar Ramirez, International Relations major, Graduation: May, 2021

Work Cited

Berger, Miriam. “Prisons Are Covid Hot Spots. But Few Countries Are Prioritizing Vaccines for Inmates.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 15, 2021. 

Busby , Josh. “Emerging Lessons from the South Korean Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Web log, March 20, 2020. 

HyunJoo Yang, Haley. “South Korea’s Waiting Game with the COVID-19 Vaccine.” ABC News. ABC News Network, January 8, 2021. 

Letki, Natalia. “Social Capital and Civil Society.” Democratization, Oxford University Press, 2009. p. 162-163. 

Tharoor, Ishaan. “Analysis | South Korea’s Coronavirus Success Story Underscores How the U.S. Initially Failed.” The Washington Post. WP Company, March 17, 2020. 

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