South Korean Response to COVID-19 Pandemic

Updated: Jul 26

This project unpacks processual details of South Korea’s exceptional early response to COVID-19 pandemic. Despite being one of the first countries outside China to experience a large-scale virus outbreak, South Korea swiftly developed an effective response system, thereby ‘flattening the curve’ even before the pandemic was declared. This paper seeks to explain how this was achieved by closely examining day-by-day government actions and interactions with its constituents. Using daily government briefings and media data, we identified nearly 1,600 distinct events and actions for the first two months into the crisis (January to March, 2020) by various types of actors (e.g., South Korean CDC, other government agencies, local governments, expert groups, the general public), and carefully wove them, resulting in over 6,000 connections among actions/events. This detailed reconstruction of the process revealed a surprising pattern.

Unlike popular views that attribute successful pandemic responses to strong government and submissive citizens in collectivistic cultures, South Korea’s effective response system was built out of constant negotiations between the government and its fragmented constituents. From the beginning of the crisis, the tension became intensified between ‘breaking normalcy’ to address the crisis (e.g., Chinese travel ban) and ‘sustaining normalcy’ despite the crisis (e.g., upholding the economy), and the South Korean government swiftly developed compromises, behind which collective action was mobilized. The tentative but nationally coordinated action then quickly enhanced collective understandings of the novel crisis, which then spawned more negotiations, further compromises, and better-informed collective action. We find that continuing this cycle ultimately resulted in a comprehensive system of response measures that helped the country to effectively manage its initial outbreak.

Drawing upon these findings, this paper advances the crisis management literature by suggesting that facing an unfolding crisis, a complex system can be plagued by a paradoxical tension between breaking and sustaining normalcy, and that swiftly managing the tension and enabling collective action can help enhancing resilience of the system.

Kim, S., Lee, H. Pak, Y., & Yun, S. Unpacking South Korean Government’s Early-stage Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Preparing Manuscript.

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