The MERS Panic and Painfully Obvious Need to Clean-Up the Korean Regulatory State

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I wrote a story about the South Korean MERS panic for this week’s Newsweek Japan (available here). Basically, I make the same argument as my friend Se-Woong Koo from Korea Expose (which you really need to start reading). The panic shows just how much South Korea needs to get its act together on public safety and competence in government.

It is ironic that when Park entered office, the biggest fear was ideological – that she might imitate her father’s harsh governing style, or that her term would trench warfare between conservatives and progressives over her father’s legacy. Now – after NIS, the nuclear materials scandal, Sewol, the staffing circus, MERS, and so on – the questions are far more elementary – do Park Geun-Hye and her closest aides just have the basic technocratic skills/focus/interest to run a modern complex country and bureaucracy? I would be surprised if her approval rating breaks 50% again before her term ends. It’s once again around 30%, as it was after Sewol. Competence is almost certain to be main line of critique from the opposition in next year’s parliamentary election.

For previous essays on this topic, go here, here, and here. The full essay follows the jump.


It is now more than three weeks since the first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) came to South Korea. This is the largest outbreak to date outside of the Middle East. An elderly Korea tourist apparently brought it back from a trip to Saudi Arabia. Korean doctors originally did not recognize the symptoms, and early patients were either sent home or placed in crowded hospital facilities in close proximity to other patients. This allowed the virus to spread in hospitals where the outbreak has been worst and where public pressure, trending toward paranoia, has been most intense.

At the time of this writing, the total number of infections exceeds one hundred and twenty. At least four people have fully recovered, while ten, all elderly or otherwise ill, have passed away. Approximately three thousand others are in preventive isolation. The virus appear to be most lethal for seniors, the very young, and the infirm. The American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that 35% of MERS patients die. In Korea, the outbreak remains mostly clustered in Seoul and its regional hospitals.

Korean media are now suggesting that the virus is mostly ‘contained,’ and that this week may be its peak. If the number of new cases drops in the next week or two, it seems likely the crisis has passed. Neither the CDC nor the World Health Organization (WHO) have issued major travel alerts or otherwise discouraged people from visiting South Korea. They recommend only basic hygienic action such as regular hand-washing. There has been no break-out into the larger population and that seems increasingly unlikely.

Bungling, then Panic

By the standard of the best known recent epidemic – Ebola in 2014-15 – Korea’s MERS contagion is relatively minor. Ebola hit west African states like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea very hard. Over 11,000 people have died since March 2014, with more than 27,000 people infected. Unlike Korean MERS, Ebola broke into the general population. Medical personnel were so routinely infected as well, that the sick sometimes went untreated. Social prejudice and superstition lead to discrimination against survivors. In some cases, military intervention was need to maintain order. Treatment personnel wore dramatic biohazard suits. Foreign attention grew as panic increased of a global spread.

MERS in Korea has seen nothing like this ‘Hollywood’ style disease outbreak. There are no helicopters, camps, or public disorder. Korea’s health system is vastly more advanced than those combatting Ebola. When Korea fought Swine Flu and SARS last decade, it resisted well. Not a single case of SARS was reported because of vigorous monitoring at ports of entry and a dedicated government response structure.

Unfortunately, such protocols were not followed in this case, and a mini-panic ensued, greatly over-inflamed by a sensationalist media response both in Korea and abroad. The government’s initial response was fairly passive, for which it has been strongly criticized. Early suspected patients were sent home and told only to sleep alone and maintain distance from others. No public guidelines were forthcoming to citizens; the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Koran analogue of the US CDC, were not heard from as the early anxiety brewed toward panic.

Little information was shared on who was sick and where, a decision which generated particularly intense anger and confusion. The government initially refused to provide the numbers of the ill, their demographic information, or the hospitals they were in. There is a widespread belief that if the government had provided such information, those who later contracted MERS in hospital might have avoided it by choosing a different hospital. Lawsuits are almost certain in the future, as victims’ families blame the government and seek restitution. In fact, so bad was the panic flowing from the information blockage, that the opposition mayor of Seoul broke with government protocol and provided such information on his own in a dramatic late-night press conference. The ensuing infighting and back-biting suggested that the government simply did not know what it was doing.

The problems continued. Unlike SARS, the government, until recently, did not step in to coordinate the response. President Park Geun-Hye did not hold a cabinet meeting on the issue until June 9, three weeks after the first case appeared and well into the national panic over its spread. Only just this week did she agree to cancel a foreign trip due to rising pressure to lead on the issue. Now, multiple government agencies and task forces have been assigned the problem, yet further compounding confusion about who is leading the central response. In practice, the spread has been stopped by local doctors in the Seoul area hospitals, the real heroes of this story.

Given this botched response, hard on the heels of similarly botched response to the Sewol ferry sinking last year, a minor paranoia has gripped the country in recent weeks. Panicked parents have pressured thousands of elementary schools to close, even though the outbreak is clustered in hospitals. Lurid stories referencing Hollywood imagery of epidemics and contagion have filled the internet. Many trips, vacations, outings, tourist holidays, and so on have been cancelled, again due to spiraling anxiety rather than widespread uptake of the virus.

The hysteria has spread around Asia as well. Hong Kong issued a ‘red’ travel alert. The Shanghai Film Festival told Koreans not to come. Tourists from China and Japan have cancelled thousands of trips. Airlines from southeast Asian countries, including Singapore and Malaysia, have cancelled flights. All in all, it is an awkward regional embarrassment for the world’s fifteenth largest economy and member of the G-20.

Indeed, so much hysteria has built up, both at home and abroad, that the government is now worried a ‘MERS effect’ will tip the economy into recession and damage the country’s national image. This week the Korean central bank cut the prime rate by twenty-five basis points, to an all-time low of 1.5%, to spur post-MERS spending. President Park said, “I urge citizens to refrain from excessively reacting to MERS for the sake of the economy.” So distrustful of their own government are Koreans now, that major media have taken to referencing foreign health authorities, such as the WHO and US CDC, to reassure people that Korea is safe.

The Politics of MERS

As the outbreak winds down, the political debate will only heat up. An enormous outpouring of confusion, then anxiety, and now increasingly anger has washed over the country. The government’s response has been widely criticized as late, botched and, half-hearted, even by conservative media outlets traditional aligned with President Park and her conservative Saenuri (New Frontier) Party.

Indeed, Saenuri itself has split over the issue, with Saenuri parliamentarians turning against the Blue House and their own president. National Assembly elections will occur next year, and the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) is sure to use MERS against the government. President Park though is term-limited to one five-year stint. Hence the internecine Saenuri split. Park’s tepid response does not threaten her own non-existent electoral prospects; she will likely retire from politics after her term, as do most Korean ex-presidents. But Saenuri parliamentarians in the National Assembly will face an angry electorate next year with little help from the unpopular Park. They are turning on her now in hopes that some distance from the administration will help them retain their seats.

It is easy to imagine that the NPAD next year will tie the botched MERS response to last year’s similarly flubbed response to the Sewol sinking (April 16, 2014), as well as the Park administration’s continuing staffing scandals. President Park has seen multiple high ranking officials either resign or be forced to withdraw their names from nomination. For example, she has already had three prime ministers – constitutionally the second in charge, similar to the American vice president – in just twenty-nine months, with yet another expected soon. All this will likely be tied into an overarching opposition narrative that President Park is incompetent to hold the office, and that her party is disinterested in clean government reforms.

President Park’s approval rating has lingered under 50% for much of her presidency, and at one point in the wake of the Sewol disaster it fell below 30%. Gallup Korea places it now at 34%. Given the scandals, Sewol, and now MERS, it is unlikely her numbers will rise above 50% before her term expires in 2017. This could bring the left into power for the first time in a decade.

Competence and the Korean Regulatory State

Longer term issues lurk in the background of this entire debate. MERS, Sewol, and the staffing scandals are only the latest indicators of the deep need to improve the Korean regulatory state and tackle endemic corruption. Park is hardly the first Korean president to wrestle with corruption and scandal. Almost all of her predecessor have been investigated after their presidencies. One even committed suicide, because indictment was imminent. Transparency International (TI), an NGO that ranks countries by perceived corruption, gives Korea a mediocre 43 out of 175. (Japan is ranked 15th; a lower score is better.)

The Park administration however has compounded these traditional Korean corruption problems with even more basic questions of competence and managerial ability. Are she and the people around her – many of whom date from her father’s time in the presidency decades ago – actually qualified and interested enough in directing the Korean state to perform its duties properly? Park’s continuously low approval ratings suggest the majority of Koreans do not believe so.

Park has always been susceptible to such critiques. She is the daughter of a previous president (dictator really), so much of her electoral appeal was in her name, rather than her accomplishments. Although an effective political operator for Saenuri, Park had little actual governing experience before assuming the presidency. Her predecessor, by contrast, had extensive previous executive experience as mayor of Seoul and a corporate CEO. As many people have said of US President Obama, the inexperienced Park may simply be overwhelmed by the sheer complexity and demands of the office. A similar critique was made of ex-President George W. Bush. His president father had established the family name which later made the son a viable presidential candidate. But the son lacked the actual professional qualifications for the office and was then overwhelmed when the Iraq occupation went off the rails and Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.

Korea, like most modern, wealthy states, has a large, complex bureaucracy tasked with insuring public safety and regulatory safeguards in an even larger and more complex economy. Yet again and again, issues of public safety arise that suggest that Korean bureaucracy is perforated with cronyism and corner-cutting. Park’s term alone has been deeply unnerving for public safety: In 2013, nuclear power plants around the country were shut down because of faked materials certificates, raising huge safety concerns and depriving the nation of power in very hot summer. The 2014 Sewol investigation suggested rampant cronyism in the regulation of maritime traffic. The ferry was significantly overloaded and a poorly trained crew was allowed to operate the ship, because inspectors looked the other way. And now MERS 2015 once again suggests Korea’s regulatory state is simply not up to the task of competently, dispassionately regulating in the public interest.

These problems are hardly Park’s fault personally, but her disinterest in the necessary reforms is unnerving. Park has repeatedly emphasized more economic growth, with her ‘creative Korea’ and ‘new miracle on the Han’ rhetoric. But much like China today, what already-wealthy Korea really needs now is not just ever more headline growth, but cleaner, less cronyistic, and more transparent growth. Unfortunately, the Park administration has gone the other way on this. Its response to criticism has been a press clamp-down so tough that it has affected Korea’s press freedom scores with external observers like Freedom House. On MERS, it sat on information until a public panic broke out, and the investigation of Sewol was politicized from the start and the ensuing reforms tepid. Indeed so big is the issue of clean, functional government in Korea now, that I predict it will be the centerpiece of the opposition’s legislative campaign next year.

Such questions bedevil any modern bureaucracy: the US looked callous and incompetent on Katrina and Iraq; Japan has been regularly accused of covering up the extent of the Fukushima disaster. But Korea’s TI score and seemingly endless government and regulatory scandals suggest the rot is deep. It is so widespread, that it has even hit Korean foreign policy. Park’s cancelled trip this week was a major visit to the United States to meet Obama, while last year the US and Korea agreed not to turn over ‘operational control’ (OPCON) of the Korean military in wartime to the Korean government in part because of competence concerns on the part of the US military. If nothing else, perhaps Park will embrace a clean managerial agenda, because she will leave the office as one of Korea’s most unpopular presidents if she does not.

Filed under: Corruption, Domestic Politics, Korea (South), Modernization, Newsweek, Scandal

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





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