South Korea’s ambassador: “We responded effectively to the coronavirus crisis”
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South Korea’s ambassador: “We responded effectively to the coronavirus crisis”

Soongu Yoon, South Korea's ambassador in Brussels

South Korea was one of the first countries to be hit by the coronavirus but also one of the first countries that managed to contain the pandemic in the first wave and served as a model for the rest of the world.

The Brussels Times interviewed South Korea’s ambassador in Brussels, Soongu Yoon, about lessons learned from the fight against the pandemic and other topical issues. Formal diplomatic relations between Belgium and Korea were established already in 1901. South Korea has also close relations with EU, including a Free Trade Agreement since 2011.

Soongu Yoon serves as ambassador to both Belgium and the EU since January 2020 after a diplomatic carrier in other countries and South Korea’s foreign ministry. He arrived in Brussels after having represented his country in the US, Algeria, United Nations and Egypt. He has studied both French Language and Literature, and International Relations.

Question: Korea was seen as a success story in fighting the first wave of the coronavirus. How did you manage to contain the spread of the virus without any significant lockdown of the economy?

“We responded to COVID-19 effectively since we had reinforced preparedness for infectious diseases based on lessons learned from previous pandemics such as MERS in 2015 and novel influenza A (H1N1) in 2009,” he explains.

“In fighting against COVID-19, we have been fully committed to three principles from the beginning: openness, transparency, and civil engagement. We have kept our society and borders open through the so-called 3-Ts (aggressive Testing, rigorous Contact Tracing, and efficient Treatment), which has enabled us to save people’s lives and maintain our daily life.

By being transparent in terms of sharing information on developments in the pandemic and government policy, the government has earned trust and support from the civil society, he says. “Most people have worn masks since the on-set stage, have followed personal hygiene rules, and have abided by social distancing principles.”

Q: Have you been hit by a second wave and if so, do you apply the same policy as before or have you adapted it based on lessons learned?

“Confirmed cases in Korea have increased again since August. The Korean government considers this resurgence of COVID-19 more seriously than the first wave since there has been an increase in community transmissions in more local areas.”

“We have been fine-tuning our counter-measures continuously including the special entry procedure and quarantine policy as the situation has changed. But the fundamental principles have remained the same. Fortunately, our response has shown positive results, and from the end of September, the number of confirmed cases per day has decreased to less than 100.”

Why contact tracing works

Compared to most countries in Europe, the infection figures are exceptionally low but the Korean government is not taking any risks and is further strengthening its response in preparation for the simultaneous outbreaks of the upcoming winter seasonal influenza and COVID-19.

A crucial matter in every country’s strategy against the pandemic is contact tracing. In most countries during the first wave no effective system was put into place, partly because it was impossible to trace and contact the high numbers of infected persons. Another problem, once systems were put into place, is the public’s trust in the government and willingness to use digital applications or reply to questions from tracers.

This is not the first time Ambassador Yoon is reaching out to our readers. In May, he published an op-ed in The Brussels Times to explain Korea’s perspective on COVID-19 and how it is seeking to strike the right balance between different core values in society.

Q: Your tracing system was effective but was also criticized for violating data protection and disclosing private data in media. In EU, most tracing is still manual and digital tracing apps are voluntary. Has anything been changed in this regard in Korea?

“There seems to be a considerable misunderstanding regarding the Korean contact tracing system,” he replies. “We don’t violate data protection and we don’t disclose private data. Our measures, including contact tracing, are entirely based on Korean domestic laws.

“Since South Korea suffered tremendous damage from MERS in 2015, there has been a fierce social debate over the use of personal information to prevent infectious diseases. On this basis, a social consensus has been established and legislated. We only use personal information to the minimum necessary, and laws clearly stipulate that such personal information should not be disclosed in a form that can be identified and should be discarded after use.”

With the limited use of personal information in response to COVID-19, Korea considers that it has secured its economy and freedom in daily life by avoiding a significant lock-down. “For instance, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) evaluated Korea’s response as successful by projecting a 2020 economic growth rate of –0.8%, the highest among OECD member countries.”

In practice, the contact tracing system works because it both digital and manual. Every infected person is contacted and asked where he or she might have been infected. A SMS is then sent to all people with addresses in the same area, indicating time and place of the infection but without disclosing any personal data. People are asked to come forward for a free test. If several people have been infected at the same place, follow-up messages are sent.

Q: In the first phase of the pandemic, your borders were kept open for travelers from abroad but this has apparently changed and quarantine is now compulsory for all travelers, irrespective from which country they come. Is Korea open for tourists from EU?

“The Korean government kept its borders open when many countries imposed border controls in the first phase of the pandemic,” Ambassador Yoon replies.

“However, as the COVID-19 situation got worse all over the world, and the pandemic caused increased anxiety because of the spread of the virus by inbound travelers to Korea, the Korean government decided on emergency measures on 13 April, such as temporary suspension of visa exemption agreements.”

Currently, the Korean government is issuing visas for high-skilled experts, short-term visitors, business visas, long-term visitor visas, student visas, work visas and investment visas in an effort to open borders. Exemptions from mandatory quarantine apply only to business visitors, scholars, and visitors entering for the purposes of public and humanitarian affairs.

New policies

Q: EU-Korea relations are among others based on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Are you satisfied with the agreement or are there any issues which need to be renegotiated?

“In fact, the 6th October next year marks the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Korea-EU FTA which has been serving an excellent platform for promoting bilateral trade and investment,” the Ambassador replies. “As the EU’s first FTA with an Asian country and as a new generation of FTA which includes a chapter on Trade and Sustainable Development, our bilateral FTA symbolizes the economic cooperation between the two sides.”

Bilateral trade and investment have seen a rapid expansion since the agreement entered into force. The EU is now Korea’s 3rd largest trading partner, the 2nd most favorite investment destination for Korean investors, and the largest foreign investor for Korea.

With the COVID-19 crisis, there is a renewed emphasis on the importance of free and fair trade environment in accordance with the rule-based multilateral trading system, he adds. There is also much more to cooperate under the changing trade environment such as climate change and digital trade. He is convinced that the EU and Korea will find a mutually beneficial way to modernize their FTA based on the principle of balance of interests.

 Q: The EU has launched a European Green Deal aiming at climate neutrality by 2050. Does Korea have a similar long-term growth strategy for transition to a sustainable digital and green economy?

 This July, the Korean government introduced the ‘Korean New Deal’ as a long-term national growth strategy to support the country’s recovery from the pandemic crisis and to respond to the global trend of transition towards the digital and green economy,” he replies.

The Korean New Deal aims at transforming the country from a fast follower of the EU into a first mover. The government plans to introduce two main policies – the Digital New Deal and the Green New Deal – with an overarching policy to strengthen the employment and social safety net.

The government will build eco-friendly energy infrastructures that promote energy saving and increased use of renewable energy. To support the objectives of the Korean New Deal, institutional frameworks will also be improved to mobilize large-scale private investments. The Treasury will inject 114,1 trillion won (approximately €102 billion) in phases until 2025 to create new markets and stimulate private demand.

“We are well aware of EU’s climate goals,” he says. The Korean New Green Deal aims also to achieve net-zero emissions.  Korea is currently drawing up its own mid-century long-term strategy after several months of consultations with a wide range of stakeholders and will present it later this year.

Celebrations in Brussels

 Q: Next year will be the 120th Anniversary of the diplomatic relationship between Belgium & Korea. Are any special events planned to celebrate the anniversary?

The cooperation between Korea and Belgium deepened with Belgium’s participation in the Korean War in 1950, the Ambassador replies. Belgium sent more than 3,000 soldiers to help preserve peace and protect the young democracy in the Korean peninsula.

“The Korean government and its people have never forgotten and will never forget the dedication and sacrifice of the Belgian soldiers.” To express its gratitude, Korea provided sanitary masks to Belgium in May amid the coronavirus crisis.

The Belgian King’s state visit to Korea last year gave new momentum for the bilateral relations between the two countries. Against this background, numerous events are planned next year in different fields to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and Belgium.

To mention just a few examples, the embassy will organize a public contest for the slogan of the anniversary, a business forum with the participation of entrepreneurs from the two countries and a visit of the Korean Naval Military Academy Cruise Training Fleet.

The Korean Cartoon Exhibition at the Belgian Cartoon Museum, a Collaboration Gala Concert at the Queen Elizabeth Concours and the Korea Festival will be organized where visitors can immerse themselves in Korean culture. Art exchanges between Korea and Belgium are planned for one year across a variety of genres, from traditional art to contemporary art, music, dance, exhibition and film.

Film lovers can start the celebrations already this October with the opening of the annual Korean film festival, organized by the Korean Culture Center in Brussels for the 8th year in row. The theme this year is “New Horizons”. The festival takes place at Bozar and Cinema Galeries during 16 – 23 October and aims to highlight Korean culture in all its diversity by screening films of all styles, focusing on drama, documentary and animation.

Korean films have attracted a world-wide audience since 2000. The greatest attention was given when film director Bong Joon-ho received the Palme d’Or award at the 2019 Cannes Festival and a number of Oscars in 2020 for his dark comedy – thriller – social drama film Parasite.

Korea is a country of many stories inspired by its long history. After becoming a high-tech society that made global access possible, the Korean films were considered not only as an art for Koreans but also a culture shared by the whole world. Movies are made using various materials, themes and backgrounds so that it is appreciated by everyone.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times