South Korea
Life perspectives for a time after COVID-19

Illustration of Prof. Kwang-Sun Joo
Prof. Kwang-Sun Joo | Illustration (detail): © Nik Neves

What role will state and society play in a post-COVID era? Kwang Sun Joo speaks about the meaning of freedom and rights in South Korea and why we should be thinking about a new world order.

By Prof Kwang-Sun Joo

To be successful in the pre-COVID-19 era, one had to be globally and locally connected. This society of proximity is possible, thanks to technological progress and enhanced communication. This is particularly true for Korea and its export-oriented economy. When the pandemic first started, the government in Korea was aware of the emergence of an infectious disease in Wuhan, but could not ban entries from China. Given that the coronavirus is transmitted through close contact and in crowded spaces, behavioural patterns of proximity that bring us physically close are however no longer a feasible option. The massive outbreak caused by the Shincheonji sect in early 2020 proves the point. Despite showing symptoms, a follower of the evangelical sect attended several church services in the city of Daegu infecting many people in the process. The leaders of the sect were accused of not having worked sufficiently with the health authorities and of being equally responsible for the deaths of COVID-19 infected people. Safety regulations and prevention have now become indispensable and the ‘untact’ culture, which is a contact-free culture, is growing. Measures such as quarantine, social distancing, mobile work, remote learning and the increasing use of delivery services have become the norm in Korea, too. The society in times of the coronavirus is a society of physical distance.

Nature strikes back

The coronavirus is putting many lives at risk and is causing economic hardship. It is difficult to predict when the situation will improve. Korea had the crisis more or less under control but the number of new cases has been rising since summer 2021. Although, it did not take long to develop a vaccine, the virus has mutated and the variants could compromise the effectiveness of the vaccines. In his book Risk Society, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck warns that potential hazards such as the threat to nature, health, nutrition, are systematically created by industrial societies; when real, these hazards and risks could become a global problem, with no exceptions. Industrial societies saw the risks coming yet ignored them and did not take the necessary counter measures. A society like ours in which the risks and hazards are real can therefore be described as a risk society.

The consequences of economic growth at any cost include climate change and the spread of the pandemic. Modernisation brought people closer to nature. However, the proximity to nature was not about an intimacy with nature but more an exploitation that included opening up each and every corner of the Earth and depleting its natural resources. In a certain sense, this could be seen as our alienation from nature and as nature’s counter attack in the form of the emergence of infectious diseases. The paradox of proximity and distance. We are unable to see the risks involved in achieving economic growth, risks that are leading us to systematic and irreversible disasters. For an assessment of the risks involved we rely on scientists and experts, who are unable to judge the situation as a whole, so they often end up overestimating or underestimating the risk. Moreover, their risk assessments are shaped by social status, economic interests or political orientation. In other words, the knowledge that guides modern society and the risk it warns us of, are political in nature. While the consequences in terms of social and economic status or physical distance may be the same, the damage caused is unequal.

Weakening the weak

The development of mobile and communication technology has brought people closer, but this is not real communication, nor genuine closeness. In its pursuit of growth, the global North monopolises the benefits of economic development. A pursuit of economic growth leads to a disastrous outcome and plays a significant role in weakening the weak. In some countries, not only are people being vaccinated once or twice, but also receive a third shot, a so-called booster shot, while in most countries of the global South even a single dose is difficult to obtain.

In Korea, a fall in consumer demand caused by the spread of infection has had far-reaching consequences for vulnerable groups. Small entrepreneurs, freelancers, hired workers or internal subcontractors have lost their jobs. On top of this, the decline in employment and income is concentrated primarily among low-income households. Women have been particularly hard hit by social distancing. Not only because they account for a large share of the jobs in the service industry and engage in atypical work, but also because school closures have resulted in women bearing the burden of looking after the children. Foreign workers and small entrepreneurs have also been hit harder by the crisis. In Korea, many foreign workers work together in factories and sleep together in small, confined spaces. They are therefore more exposed to infections as a group.

Freedom as a right

The coronavirus pandemic raises questions about economic modernisation and the nature of a risk society and spurs the demand for a change in policies that ignore risks and are aimed solely at boosting economic growth. The pandemic has also encouraged us to reflect on the role of the community and on the relationship between the individual and the community. The modern age is an age of expanding freedoms. For a long time now, Korea has been highlighting individual freedom, having experienced state repression under a ‘developmental dictatorship’ under President Park Chung-hee (1961 - 1979) and under the subsequent conservative regime (1988–1993). This has played a huge role in shaping Korean society, for example, in the struggle against dictatorships and in the removal of the former president Park Geun-hye (2013–2017). She was suspended from office because of allegations of corruption. Freedom is a right in Korea and a right also means that an individual can move further apart from the community.

As a result of the pandemic, people now expect the community and government to be more actively engaged. In an effort to ensure normality, the central and local governments in Korea have tried to support citizens in their daily lives through what was known as the ‘K-quarantine’ model – the name given to the overall strategy to combat the pandemic, based on pop culture terms, such as ‘K-pop’ and ‘K-drama’. At the start of the pandemic, the Korean government did a thorough job of tracking and supporting infected persons, providing transparent information, facilitating accurate diagnoses, improving public health care and setting up an emergency fund.

Modern thought that stresses the importance of individual rights is indeed too one-sided. In most cases, the community has invariably played a significant role in the survival and prosperity of the individual. What we need once the crisis is over is a dialectics of economic growth and risk tolerance on the one side and of the rights and roles of civil society on the other. For the K-quarantine model, the role of the government was important but so was the role of the citizens. Citizens voluntarily practised social distancing, wore masks and followed the guidelines set by the government.

There is no need to insist on the implementation of only one of these components. Because while economic growth brings prosperity and comfort, it also increases the risk of environmental pollution and climate change caused by CO2 emissions, nuclear accidents and the excessive use of chemicals.

Underlining the importance of individual rights – human rights, for instance – might achieve political progress, but an overemphasis on rights can divide society. When speaking of rights, most people first think of their personal rights and are soon indifferent to the rights of others or of society as a whole. It is time to take a critical look at the balance between economic growth and risk and between individual rights and the roles of the community and the individual. The coronavirus pandemic has made people aware that modern society is a risk society in which forces must be united if individuals, nations, human beings and nature are to live together.