How did this happen? For many it is baffling that a relatively small Asian country could succeed where much of the rest of the world tragically failed. Was it South Korea’s experience dealing with another respiratory epidemic illness, Middle East respiratory syndrome, in 2015? Its excellent and affordable health-care system? Its cultural values? Mask-wearing? Some of these factors doubtless accelerated South Korea’s rapid deployment of testing stations and its subsequent efforts to identify and treat patients.
But the efficient South Korean response also hinged on two historically rooted factors: the close cooperation between the state and the private sector, and the South Korean public’s willing and almost enthusiastic embrace of a large-scale medical intervention. The origins of both of these phenomena lie in the South Korean experience of rapid industrialization and nation-building during the Cold War.
After the first cases of covid-19 were reported in South Korea on Jan. 20, the government recognized the need for prompt and comprehensive action. According to Reuters, South Korean Health Ministry officials called a meeting with representatives from medical companies in January when only four cases of the virus had been confirmed. The health officials told the executives that the country needed to have tests ready in short order, and they promised rapid approval by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In scarcely one week, the government had approved a test kit developed by Kogene Biotech and would soon fast-track the approval of test kits developed by several other companies.
The endeavor was so successful that by March, 47 countries were seeking to import South Korean test kits. Compared with President Trump, who has squabbled with 3M and General Motors over the production of masks and ventilators, the government and private sector worked together seamlessly in South Korea. Companies responded quickly to the state’s demands while receiving strong government support.
The private companies’ swift response to an urgent government fiat followed a pattern of state-private sector partnership in the service of the nation that was pioneered by South Korea’s authoritarian ruler Park Chung Hee during the 1960s. When Park seized power in a military coup in 1961, South Korea was among the poorest countries in the world and, from the perspective of many U.S. officials who often called it a “rat hole,” it was hopeless. But Park was driven by an all-consuming determination to achieve double-digit economic growth rates and raise living standards in his impoverished country.
Although Park received much advice from the United States during his 19 years in power, the model of development he came up with did not emulate the American style of free-market capitalism at all. It bound South Korean conglomerates closely to the state, offering them special incentives if they followed state guidance and performed. During the 1960s, Park recognized that to achieve an economic takeoff, he needed to dramatically increase exports. His government made low-interest loans available to companies that were willing to test their mettle exporting textiles, wigs and other light-manufactured goods abroad. Those that succeeded were rewarded with even greater largesse from the state.
This development model had a dark side, of course. The cozy ties between the state and businesses facilitated corruption, strengthened Park’s grip on power and heightened repression. But from a purely economic standpoint, it worked. Exports increased, Korean firms captured a growing share of international markets, and per capita income rose.
Park never strayed far from his military roots. The managerial techniques and soldierly discipline he had learned in his years as an officer informed his approach to development. American aid officials were impressed by how his presentations seemed to come “straight out of the U.S. military briefing manuals.” South Korea’s rapid response to the coronavirus has contained echoes of this military ethos, although the country shifted to more democratic governance in the 1980s and 1990s. “We acted like an army,” one infectious-disease specialist in Korea told Reuters.
Cold War nation-building in South Korea brought not only state-led economic development, but also new kinds of government-led medical interventions. As historian John P. DiMoia has explained, during the 1950s, many South Koreans were still unfamiliar with Western medicine and did not initially welcome official health programs. This began to change under Park Chung Hee’s rule. The South Korean leader launched public health campaigns that fundamentally changed both the medical profession and the public’s attitude toward it. New professional standards were demanded of doctors and their support staff, while the public was encouraged — and at times coerced — to participate in family planning and other state-organized health interventions.
The swift rollout of coronavirus testing was not South Korea’s first large-scale effort to combat an infectious organism. During the 1960s, according to DiMoia, one of the biggest medical problems plaguing South Korea was parasite infestation. The Park government made a concerted effort to eradicate parasites through a national testing program that targeted elementary school students. For nearly two decades, collecting of stool samples for analysis was a routine part of life for South Korean children. The children that learned — at times grudgingly — to accept government testing for parasites during the 1970s and 1980s are now the adults who willingly line up to be tested for the coronavirus.
Today, the Moon Jae-in government’s response to the virus has not been without flaws and criticism. The South Korean media has blamed him for not moving quickly enough to ban Chinese tourists when the virus began spreading rapidly. Others have criticized the high degree of state surveillance that accompanied the rollout of testing. The government would have had far more difficulty carrying out contact tracing if it could not have closely followed the movement of its citizens through their smartphones and credit cards.
Here, too, there are faint echoes of South Korea’s authoritarian past, which was too often marked by the close monitoring of students, intellectuals and other dissidents by military regimes.
But Moon, who was imprisoned during the 1970s for protesting Park Chung Hee’s authoritarian rule, has been careful to keep his policies within the confines of democratic accountability. Conservative U.S. commentators who claim South Korea has succeeded because it is not a democracy have it wrong. In fact, South Korea has avoided the draconian lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed by the Communist Party of China. Through the use of technology and data, South Korean has been able to keep businesses open to a greater extent than most parts of the United States.
South Korea’s impressive management of the coronavirus only strengthens its rapidly growing cultural influence around the world, which is abundantly clear in the widespread popularity of K-pop and the unprecedented success of the Korean film “Parasite” at the Academy Awards.
The Moon government’s deft handling of a global pandemic that has taken on nightmarish proportions elsewhere has drawn praise from health experts and policymakers worldwide, with many citing it as a model. “Let’s not follow Italy, let’s follow South Korea,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said recently when talking about how the United States should deal with its own swiftly escalating crisis.
Unfortunately, it is too late for the United States to emulate South Korea and avert thousands of deaths. But we could learn from its example, by encouraging better public-private partnerships in manufacturing needed medical equipment and protective gear and by encouraging Americans to embrace public health initiatives, including widespread testing, to save lives.