<span>[Column] </span>Korea, the West and Covid-19

Posted on : 2020-04-28 17:13 KST Modified on : 2020-04-28 17:13 KST

In recent days, South Korean newspapers have been awash with pictures of European nurses wearing bin bags to protect themselves against Covid-19, before contracting the illness. The main reaction has been surprise at the poor conditions in which European healthcare professionals have to work compared to their South Korean counterparts.

The surprise of South Koreans has not come as a surprise to me though. For the past two decades, I have been visiting, studying, researching and teaching about South Korea. Twice I have lived in Seoul. One of the constant puzzles over these past two decades has been the sheer number of South Koreans who idealize the West and dismiss their own country.

Take the case of South Korea’s healthcare system. It is consistently ranked amongst the best in the world by multiple organizations. Healthcare professionals are world-class. Hospitals are clean and modern. The costs for patients are generally very low.

Yet, it seems that it has taken the Covid-19 pandemic for many South Koreans to understand that their healthcare system has nothing to envy from those in Western Europe and the United States.

This has a lot to do with the way South Koreans underplay their country’s strengths. My first visit to a South Korean medical center took place while I was a student in Seoul, back in 2003. The nurse, doctor and pharmacist who treated me were all professional and kind, taking their time to talk to me and understand what the problem was. The medical center and pharmacy were as good as any I had been to in Europe.

For days after, my friends, teachers and staff at the university where I was studying kept asking me how I was, and how my visit to the medical center and pharmacy had been. It took me a while to understand that one of the things they wanted was external validation of the
South Korean healthcare sector.

This is just but one example of how many South Koreans think of their country when they compare it to Western Europe, the United States, Australia or Canada. Over the years, I have heard countless South Koreans belittle their country on everything from music (“all K-pop bands sound the same”) to 5G (“the service is poor”) to life in general (“Hell Joseon”).

And certainly, not everything in South Korea is perfect. There are very valid discussions on issues such as inequality, competition in the education system or the position of women in society, for example. And Western countries can serve as good comparisons for South Korea when addressing these issues.

But the point is that South Koreans should not simply assume that other countries are dealing better with their shared problems, and just try to copy what they are doing. They should not assume that others are somehow ‘superior’ and South Korea ‘inferior’. A more productive approach would be to compare what South Korea is doing with what others are doing, as equals, and find solutions that suit their country.

Which takes back us to Covid-19. Polls show that most South Koreans now think that their country is dealing with the pandemic well. Many feel glee at the praise that Seoul has received for the handling of the pandemic. The results of last Wednesday’s National Assembly results confirm this.

But there has been a robust domestic debate about the way the government has dealt with Covid-19. And some critics of the government’s response pointed out that the United States quickly banned all flights from China, while South Korea did not. This is fine. But it does not imply that the government should have simply followed the US lead. It should follow the most appropriate approach for South Korea.

As the first wave of Covid-19 recedes and the world prepares for a second and possibly more waves, South Koreans can be sure that many European countries are looking at their country for inspiration and lessons. Not from a feeling from inferiority, but out of recognition that South Korea has led the way in dealing with the pandemic.

The case of Covid-19 thus shows that South Korea does not necessarily need external validation. It needs to take comf
ort in its own strengths and build on them. Be it with regards to its healthcare sector or anything else.

Dr Ramon Pacheco Pardo is Associate Professor in International Relations at King’s College London and the KF-VUB Korea Chair at Free University of BrusselsThe views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]
button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles