South Korea’s lockdown-less response to COVID-19

South Korea’s recent responses to its third and most serious wave of COVID-19 show just how reluctant the government is to compromise the economy beyond a certain point by introducing lockdowns and other stringent restrictions in handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Bumjoon Park

After more than a full year since the first case of COVID-19 in South Korea on 20 January 2020, the country’s responses to the ebbs and flows of infections provide us with an insight into what to expect from South Korea’s future COVID-19 related measures. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea has been lauded as one of the most successful countries in controlling the spread of the virus due to its extensive testing and tracing measures, with some even expressing concerns over the degree of surveillance and invasiveness of the measures. However, the government has been very reluctant to order movement restrictions or non-essential businesses suspensions, let alone a lockdown. All of which were implemented in many countries, even those with fewer numbers of cases like Australia and New Zealand.

This aversion to restricting movement and businesses was clearly exhibited when the government opted not to declare a Social Distancing Level 3, the highest level on a five-tier COVID-19 response scheme, despite the weekly average COVID-19 case numbers fulfilling the criteria set by the government for a Level 3 declaration from mid-December 2020 to early January 2021. Level 3 measures include restrictions on non-essential businesses, closure of public facilities, remote work mandate and a 50 percent capacity limit for (inter-regional) express buses and trains. Instead, the government banned the private gathering of five or more people and ordered shorter business hours for restaurants and other eating and drinking establishments. Testing and quarantine measures were also recently ramped up for inbound travellers. While these restrictions did discourage movement and COVID-19 cases started to decrease, they are a far cry compared to the lockdown measures employed by other countries. 

The most prominent factor for explaining this aversion is the economy. Government officials made no secret that negative impacts on the economy and subsequently peoples’ livelihoods are of utmost concern when implementing COVID-19 related restrictions. As is the case with other countries, South Korea’s socio-political and cultural factors influenced its balancing act between the need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keeping the economy working. As a country with strong presidential authority and a ruling party that currently holds both the presidency and a comfortable majority in the legislature, South Korea has the capability to enforce more stringent measures if it decides to do so. However, the relatively mild epidemiological situation compared to other countries combined with the record of the South Korean people voting out unsatisfactory governments, has pressured the government from implementing more restrictive measures that can further discourage economic activities. The populace’s largely cooperative responses to past public directives, often attributed to their Confucian traditions and a group-oriented mindset fostered by South Korea’s precarious geopolitical situation, also reassured the government that less stringent measures will be met with sufficient compliance and produce the necessary effects.

Uncertainties like the vaccines’ efficacy to new variants of COVID-19 makes it difficult to predict future responses based on past measures, and while movement restrictions and even lockdowns cannot be entirely ruled out, we can nevertheless expect South Korea to limit its responses to those not involving direct movement restrictions, suspension of businesses or other lockdown measures in the near to medium-term. What we can see is more stringent entry measures for inbound travellers to offset the limited domestic restrictions with stricter testing and quarantine requirements, and even more travel bans from countries with worrisome epidemiological situations. However, barring a new spike in worldwide COVID-19 cases, it is more likely that measures will start to ease as they did following the first two waves of COVID-19. Social Distancing Levels were recently lowered following the reduction of COVID-19 cases after its third wave peak, global COVID-19 case numbers are in decline and mass vaccinations are underway. Currently suspended quarantine free entry schemes like the one South Korea had with Japan for business travellers may resume with proof of vaccination or other mechanisms for ensuring COVID-19 free entries and may expand to other travellers in the following months.

Bumjoon Park is a Japan-based political and security risk analyst covering East Asia.

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