South Korea Tries a Tentative Reopening—and Pays for It

After a new spurt of coronavirus cases in Seoul and with a second wave deemed “inevitable,” South Korea is bracing itself for a new normal.

People wearing masks in Seoul
People wearing masks walk in the Yeongdeungpo entertainment district in Seoul on May 11. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

SEOUL—“How many want iced Americano?” said one man to the crowd of co-workers who gathered around him. Ten hands shot up in the air, and he went to the counter to order while everyone else, standing close, chatted exuberantly. This was the first day back at work for most people in South Korea after a long time stuck at home, so there was plenty to talk about. 

SEOUL—“How many want iced Americano?” said one man to the crowd of co-workers who gathered around him. Ten hands shot up in the air, and he went to the counter to order while everyone else, standing close, chatted exuberantly. This was the first day back at work for most people in South Korea after a long time stuck at home, so there was plenty to talk about. 

It was Wednesday, May 6, the first day that South Korea—lauded around the world for its successfully proactive approach to stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus—officially loosened social distancing guidelines. The people working in the area near Seoul City Hall could now in good conscience go to their nearby coffee shop in groups of 12, and everyone was in good humor. 

“You owe me 500 won [about 50 cents],” one managerial-looking guy jokingly told one of the younger members of the group, walking up next to him with the palm of his hand stretched out and poking him in the stomach.

On that day, social distancing in South Korea almost seemed a thing of the past—the new national policy called for less strict “distancing in daily life”—which basically meant that the few places that were still closed before were now open, and schools would soon be as well, while everyone was still asked to wear a mask and keep a small distance between each other. And of course, to stay home if they are sick.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

Then things took a sudden turn—revealing just how tentative Seoul’s supposed victory against the coronavirus was. The weekend before the official loosening, a 29-year-old went out in Itaewon, an international area packed with bars and clubs. The man was carrying the virus, and a week later at least 86 cases could be traced back to him, causing the biggest single-day spike in reported cases since early April. Authorities estimate that about 1,500 people could have been exposed to the virus at the clubs he visited.

The Seoul city government issued an administrative order shortly after the numbers went up, effectively suspending clubs and bars from operating. Likewise, anybody who’s been in the area over that weekend is encouraged to get tested, symptomatic or not. Of 35 new cases, 29 were found to be linked to Itaewon, the capital’s party district, according to officials from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The spike has caused outrage online among many South Koreans, especially against the LGBT community, because the clubs at the center of the new outbreak reportedly catered to the gay community.

The new cluster of cases also prompted the government to push back the reopening of schools by one week, and many officials said they felt justified in their skepticism about the initial reopening policy.

“This term ‘new normal’ is mentioned a lot lately, and we’re very curious to see the future of post-COVID Korea,” said Son Young-rae, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, at a press briefing for foreign media late last week. 

The government says it is fully prepared for a second wave of the virus. “The key is to contain COVID-19, the second round, more efficiently. The Korean government is getting ready for the potential second wave, we aim to contain the disease while having the daily life. So instead of … rooting out the virus itself, it’s more about containing the virus,” Kwon Jun-wook of the Korea Centers for Disease Control said at the press conference late last week.

Even so, despite the Itaewon outbreak, officials said the nation was still doing well overall against the pandemic. “In recent days the number of daily confirmed cases are well lower than 10 cases, the majority of them are from inbound travelers, and 5 percent or so of the confirmed cases are from unidentifiable sources,” said Son. “This means that we have recovered control of COVID-19. So, I think we can maintain this level of containment and control while widening daily life and increase mobility to go back to life before.”

Overall, South Korea has kept its numbers of new cases very low, the recent spike excluded, hovering around 10 per day for almost a month now and experiencing three consecutive days with zero domestic cases, with the only infected people arriving internationally. 

And with the economy being battered, half the semester gone, and the weather getting better, now just seemed to be the best time to encourage people to go out and about once again, one expert said. “The warm and humid weather is not good for the virus’s survival, with human behavior going out rather than inside in summertime, and the lowest recorded number of new confirmed cases, those conditions all together, it’s appropriate to ease restrictions,” Kim Woo-joo, a professor in infectious diseases at Korea University Guro Hospital, told Foreign Policy.

But it’s still too early to completely let go, he warned: “Korea should be very cautious to avoid a recurrence of an outbreak. It’ll be a step-by-step approach, and the government should asses every situation and the risk of resurgence, deciding to go or not to go or sometimes going back to major social distancing.” 

Especially come fall, with the return of colder weather and people going inside in confined spaces once again, the risk will grow. “Without effective vaccine or having protective herd immunity in the community, it will be inevitable, inevitable to have a second big wave in the autumn season,” Kim said.

The South Korean government agrees. “We need to be ready to have the second wave at any time. I think we need to think of it as a given scenario, it’s inevitable,” said Son, the health ministry spokesperson.

South Korea managed to contain the spread of the virus effectively in the first wave by being responsive, he said. In the beginning, the new coronavirus was a total mystery. Much of it still is, but officials know more now than in January. “Novel infectious diseases are always something new, it’s something we do not know. Against this backdrop we have to make decisions very quickly, and sometimes we make the wrong decisions. And in that case, we have to fix them quickly,” Son said. 

He mentioned the choice by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use the drug remdesivir to shorten time in the hospital for severe COVID-19 patients, and he mentioned South Korean research into using plasma transfusion from recovered patients as a potential cure. In short, he’s optimistic when it comes to treating the virus that inevitably will return.

Son is also optimistic because he guesses that the conditioning we’ve all been through these past months will stick—that there’ll be a distinct post-pandemic world, for better or for worse. “We all agree that the world is totally different from what we had in the past. If you visit Seoul after this situation, you will be seeing differences, shops and restaurants will be checking your body temperature, or you’ll have to go through some sort of procedure,” he said.

On the evening of May 6, as the tepid dusk settled into a chill night, the popular Yeouido Hangang Park was still full of people, as it had been even during social distancing. People ate takeout fried chicken or snapped selfies in the bright moonlight that illuminated the clear night sky.

A group of young people sat on a blanket sharing drinks and playing games to determine who had to take the next sip. At least some of the old ways are sticking around, for better or for worse.

Morten Soendergaard Larsen is a freelance journalist based in Seoul who writes about geopolitics.