It’s obvious South Korea has done a lot right while we’ve done a lot wrong. But according to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, there’s nothing to learn from Seoul — at least according to his totally inaccurate and stereotype-laden misrepresentation of South Korea’s response.
“They had an explosion of cases at one megachurch and then they used their military and police powers to lock down that church, arrest everybody who was in contact with individuals in that church,” Azar told CNN on Oct. 23, responding to a Columbia University study that estimated that 215,000 U.S. deaths might have been avoided if the United States had followed South Korea’s approach. South Korea was successful, Azar said, due to “their significant lockdown efforts, things that fit them within their cultural and legal context but would likely not fly here in the United States.”
Azar was wrong in two ways. First of all, as South Korea’s largest newspaper pointed out, the country’s military has provided only medical staff support. South Korea’s success has nothing to do with some sort of despotic Asian behavior and everything to do with sensible policies. These include, as the Wall Street Journal noted, aggressive early testing, contact tracing and mask-wearing programs aided by clear government direction and community mobilization.
Azar is “simply inventing an alternate reality about how the South Korean government responded to the outbreak,” Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me. He added that lawmakers repeatedly urged Azar to pursue precisely the same policies during a series of meetings in January and February. “While President Trump was denying the problem and praising what a great job Xi Jinping had done, the South Korean government was prioritizing the health and safety of its people by instituting widespread testing and tracing, something that should be commended.”
It’s true that South Korea’s outbreak was exacerbated by the irresponsible actions of one megachurch, but it’s not true that everyone connected to church members was arrested. One leader was arrested in August after flagrant violations of public health restrictions. And while some contact tracing programs in South Korea were more invasive than what Americans are used to, that’s not due to their “cultural” context.
“South Koreans don’t comply with invasive contact tracing because they are Asian, they comply with it because they have been through pandemics before and they understand the severity of the danger,” said Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan policy research organization.
Trump and Azar’s maligning of South Korea is just one aspect of this administration’s overall mistreatment of South Korea and mismanagement of the alliance. Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea while trying to force Seoul to pay more than five times its current share of the cost of hosting U.S. troops. The Defense Department stopped paying the salaries of Korean workers on U.S. military bases in the middle of the pandemic. After a top-level defense meeting in Washington on Oct. 14, the mood was so poor officials declined to hold a news conference.
“Americans take the South Korean alliance for granted, as if it will always be there,” Town said. “But in South Korea there’s a real debate about what their options are.”
Just this month, South Korea’s ambassador to Washington reportedly said that just because the United States has been South Korea’s primary ally for the past 70 years doesn’t mean it will remain so for the next 70. This dynamic is particularly tragic given that the United States is seeking South Korea’s cooperation to push back on Chinese regional aggression.
“The Trump administration is lashing out and looking for parties to blame and thinking about the domestic situation in the United States, but it couldn’t come at a worse time, thinking about the alliance and the role it could play vis-a-vis China in the region,” said Kristine Lee, associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Many Korea-watchers are looking toward a potential Biden administration to return the relationship to normal. But if Trump wins reelection, four more years of such damage would fundamentally change the relationship.
The good news for the United States is that it’s not too late. South Korea’s program of aggressive testing, contact tracing and isolation is still the best way to save the most American lives today. The Trump administration should stop deflecting blame and just get to work.