Civilian preparedness, military support key to South Korea’s COVID-19 response

Civilian preparedness, military support key to South Korea’s COVID-19 response

Felix Kim

In early March 2020, South Korea was in the grip of the COVID-19 outbreak. In just two weeks, the number of infections jumped about 800% into the thousands. People were dying.

Quickly, the country mobilized: Gatherings were halted; public spaces were disinfected; and a comprehensive campaign of testing, quarantine and contact tracing was set in motion. Two months later, officials said the virus had been contained to a daily trickle of new infections and deaths.

How was this nation of 51.6 million people able to stem the coronavirus contagion?

Disaster drills, military training, and laws and cultural norms that facilitate quarantine and preventive measures, among other factors, according to Bruce Bennett, a senior international/defense researcher at the Rand Corp.

“Response capability starts with understanding a problem and recognizing it,” Bennett, who has written extensively about Korean Peninsula issues, told FORUM. South Koreans “recognize that they face [from North Korea] a chemical and a biological weapon threat, as well as a nuclear weapon threat.”

This recognition helped prepare South Korea’s military and civilians for the COVID-19 outbreak, he said. Annual drills involving the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) include training to respond to biological attacks.

“The role of the KCDC has been quite clear in terms of trying to get on top of something like this, to diagnose it, to determine what areas have been affected,” Bennett said. “The fact that people were trained in quickly trying to understand the disease and then get it under control is something which certainly helped.”

Also helpful were national laws pertaining to disease containment, he added.

Mandatory smartphone apps have been used to monitor people’s symptoms and movements, according to the KCDC. Anyone found violating quarantine regulations could be ordered to wear a monitoring device and face hefty penalties.

South Korean cultural attitudes, forged by decades of threat awareness, eased acceptance of government-imposed controls for social distancing and quarantine, Bennett said.

As of May 11, 2020, South Korea had about 10,900 confirmed COVID-19 cases with about 250 deaths, according to the KCDC.

Bennett said the nation’s large, well-trained Armed Forces played a central role in the virus response. Approximately two-thirds of Republic of Korea military personnel are serving a mandatory, two-year conscription, with officers, noncommissioned officers and other professionals comprising the rest.

Military personnel were deployed early to virus-hit areas to train civilians in using protective masks and clothing, disinfecting public spaces and distributing supplies. (Pictured: Republic of Korea military personnel directs a team preparing to disinfect a bus terminal in Seoul in March 2020 to combat the spread of the coronavirus.)

“Most South Korean young men have served in the military,” Bennett said. “So even though they are now out of the military, they continue on in the reserves. They still get some degree of annual training, they maintain familiarity with many of these procedures, and they understand how important it is to have the protection in such cases. So, the military has been a great resource in the overall response.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.