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[Robert J. Fouser] South Korea pulls through 2020

The year 2020 has been a very cruel one, as the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe. As of mid-December, 74 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported and 1.65 million people have died from the disease. The disease has affected all countries, though some have been hit harder than others. School closures have affected at least 1 billion children worldwide, and economies have been devastated. After a long decline, poverty in developing countries is increasing again, causing widespread suffering.

An index of COVID-19 suffering based on health, economic and social components has yet to be developed, but if it were, South Korea would rank as one of the least-affected countries. Though the number of cases has increased with the arrival of colder weather, South Korea ranks 161st by the number of cases per capita, and 157th in deaths per capita.

The economy declined earlier in the year but has since recovered. Most estimates for 2020 predict a decline in gross domestic product of a little over 1 percent. Unemployment, meanwhile, has crept up, but remains below 4 percent. These are enviable figures compared to the rest of the world.

The pandemic forced schools to close earlier in the year, but successful efforts to contain COVID-19 allowed them to open faster than in most other countries. Large gatherings and events have been cancelled, but the country has so far avoided the strict lockdowns that have affected other countries. The National Assembly elections in April saw high turnout amid strict public health protocols. Unlike many countries that closed their borders, South Korea has remained open by mandating a 14-day quarantine upon entry.

Throughout the year, South Korea earned wide praise for its effective response to the pandemic, becoming a benchmark for others. As the US searched for a response in the spring, for example, South Korea appeared frequently in public discourse as a model to follow.

South Korea has long been a model for developing countries, but 2020 marks the first time that advanced democratic nations in Europe and North America looked to South Korea for ideas. Though South Koreans have been focused on getting through the pandemic, attention from nations that Koreans have long looked to as models has given Koreans a boost of confidence in tough times. The sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 remained a heavy drag on national self-confidence.

This was also the year that the South Koreans found themselves as trendsetters in global popular culture. In February, “Parasite,” directed by Bong Joon-ho, became the first foreign-language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. The surprise win stirred new interest in South Korean cinema around the world and gave Koreans a boost of self-confidence.

As the pandemic raged, “Parasite” faded from view, but K-pop, particularly BTS, continued to sweep the globe. BTS’ upbeat singing and dancing packed in colorful videos offered moments of relief from the stresses of the pandemic. By year’s end, BTS had three No. 1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. BTS’ recent “Life Goes On” made history as the first Hot 100 hit sung mostly in Korean. The global popularity of K-pop has changed perceptions of South Korea. No longer perceived as an imitator, the nation is now thought of as a creator and trendsetter. The idea of sitting at the center of global trends has helped boost self-confidence.

As has happened frequently in the past, politics dampened national self-confidence. Former Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s suicide in July shocked the nation for weeks. Park took his life as accusations of sexual harassment became public. He had developed a career as a human rights lawyer and supporter of equality for women. Park joined a long list of hypocritical politicians.

President Moon Jae-in‘s popularity rose in the first half of the year as the public expressed approval of the government’s pandemic response. It declined in the second half as turmoil in the real estate market combined with economic worries. The recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases has caused further decline. With a little less than a year and a half left in office, recent dips in the president’s popularity will hasten lame-duck status at a time when strong leadership is needed.

As 2020 finally winds down, South Korea finds itself as a model and trendsetter for the first time in its history. Never before have so many looked to South Korea for ideas and inspiration. Lurking inside this newfound confidence, however, is political queasiness that quietly drags on the national self-confidence.


Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean-language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at robertjfouser@gmail.com -- Ed.
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