Rebuilding a nation post-pandemic – the South Korean way

By - World Healthcare Journal

The World Economic Series in conjunction with Diplomat magazine hosted Her Excellency Ambassador Enna Park and Dae Joong Lee, Director for Development Finance, Ministry of Economy and Finance to speak about the impact of Covid-19 on South Korea. In the second of our two reports, Dr Lee gives detailed insight into the economic impact of the pandemic and the Korea New Deal, a national strategy for future transformation.

He began by reminding the audience that Korea was one of the first countries outside China to experience coronavirus. He also stressed that Korea has recently experienced the second wave, though it has not been as virulent as the first: the peak has not been as high but it has taken longer to contain.

In contrast, some countries have not yet tackled the first wave, while others are currently being overwhelmed at the speed with which the second wave has struck. “So it seems we will be sleeping with the enemy for some time yet,” he said.


Learning from South Korea

Dr Lee drew interesting comparisons between the UK and Korea, which is two fifths the size of the UK but has a similar population size – 51.8m compared to the UK’s 67.9m. Such a dense population makes Korea more vulnerable to disease but, despite being on a similar path as Europe in March 2020, Korea managed to flatten the curve without a national lockdown.

The key, as Ambassador Park also stressed, lay in testing, tracing and treating, along with immediate mask-wearing by citizens with strict fines for violation. The implementation of innovative technologies in all stages of test, trace and treat and the fast-track approval for test kits and the ease of accessing a test, along with social-distancing measures, have all ensured that South Korea has not needed to go into lockdown.

After the MERS outbreak in 2015, Korea amended legal frameworks for pandemic response in case of future virus emergencies. Dr Lee noted that many countries have struggled to put test and trace measures in place due to the complexities of General Data Protection Regulation, and considered that nations will have to resolve the issue of finding a suitable balance between the collection of personal information and the protection of the privacy of infected individuals.


The economic strategy

In addition, Korea has implemented strong fiscal measures to alleviate the economic downturn as a result of Covid-19. Fiscal support of 277 trillion won (14.4 per cent of GDP) has been put in place. Along with the healthcare Covid containment measures, the Korean economy was projected to shrink the least among G20 countries in 2020 according to the OECD Economic Outlook in June.

The Korean New Deal consists of two main pillars: the Digital New Deal and the Green New Deal, both of which are based on strong employment and a social safety net. The first focus of this new deal is a strong vertical integration of data, network and artificial intelligence or DNA. This includes collecting, disclosing and utilising data, expanding the integration of 5G and AI into industry, creating a “smart government” and advancing cyber security. Digitisation of infrastructure in urban spaces, roads and rivers, industrial complexes including distribution centres, and educational infrastructure, healthcare systems, and remote working and online systems businesses will all help propel Korea to the forefront of industrial nations.

The Green New Deal will transition infrastructure into 21st-century compatible facilities, creating zero-energy buildings, restoring the terrestrial, marine and urban ecosystems in 25 regions, and enhancing the management system for clean and safe water. Such measures will achieve a balance among people, growth and nature.

With a low-carbon and decentralised energy supply in mind, a new smart grid will be built. Renewable energy will be promoted and the supply of electric and hydrogen vehicles will be increased. Innovation in green industry will be supported with a loan of 1.9 trillion won for the sector.

“The consequence and the impact of the virus have harshly hit the poor and the vulnerable classes,” said Dr Lee. “The government plans to expand employment insurance and introduce an employment support programme to allow people with low incomes to focus on job searches without worrying about their basic livelihood. ”

By focusing on digital and green talent training, along with training individuals for new technologies and enhancing accessibility to digital infrastructure, Korea aims to protect against unemployment and disparities well into the middle of this century.


Penetrating questions

Both Ambassador Park and Dr Lee faced many questions from the audience, who were keenly interested in the detail of Korea’s success in the face of Covid-19. Dr Lee stressed that the government fully respected the independence of the Korean Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (which is now Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency). With regard to the success of its test, trace and treat system, he reiterated Ms Park’s view that the Korean people understand the importance of granting access to their data for the greater good.

He also outlined the strict measures in place to access the database and revealed that strict penalties are in place for data leaks including felony charges. “If we hadn’t had the MERS outbreak in 2015 we would not have had such stringent measures in place,” he said.

In response to a question about job security, the Ambassador spoke about the creation of public-sector jobs by the government, along with encouragement of the private sector to create further employment opportunities. Mr Lee added that discussion about a universal  basic income was under way but that so far nothing has been decided.

He went on to say that there is support for the consumer in the form of tax incentives for green vehicles. And in response to a question about maritime issues, he explained while  there is no direct support for shipping currently, as part of the Green New Deal, there is a plan to establish an eco-friendly generation system in 42 island regions, as well as large offshore wind farms. As the plan develops there will be the likelihood that maritime issues will be supported in the future.


In conclusion

South Korea is more advanced in its pandemic response as a result of previous virus outbreaks. As a result, structures are in place to deal with Covid-19 as it evolves, but there is already a national strategy for transformation in place that looks to the future – whatever shape it will take.



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