Surveilling Caringly: Watchful Government Support in South Korea

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Author: Julia Nagai, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) alumna. You can contact her at:

Fieldsite: David Park*, my main research participant, is currently living in Seoul, South Korea. He recently moved back to South Korea after studying in the United States for a few years. I am currently based in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, Japan.

*Name has been changed.

David Park was studying in the United States when the pandemic started. He decided to go home because he thought that the situation in the United States would get far worse than it would in other countries. “People didn’t wear masks and the government did not track the route of Covid patients. And people did not tend to stay home. So many people do not have insurance. That makes people ignore the fact that they have Covid symptoms”, he explained.

From David’s perspective, surveilling people who have been infected with the virus is one of the key components to fighting it. In his native South Korea, there are many restrictions placed on those who have been confirmed to have or are at high risk of having the virus. When David first arrived in South Korea from the United States, he was tested for the coronavirus. Despite having the test come back negative, he was required to quarantine for two weeks. He was not without government support during this time. While stuck inside his house, he received packages with food, masks, sanitizers, and flowers, as well as some money. Although the government tried to make his quarantine comfortable, there was also a huge penalty for going outside during the two weeks. He would have been charged a fine roughly equivalent to $9,oo0 USD if he left his home. In addition to providing him supplies, the government kept a close eye on him. He was required to download two apps to his phone: one that tracked his location and one that tracked symptoms of Covid-19. In addition, a government official called him everyday.

Screengrab of the research participant’s bank account, showing the amount of money sent to him by the government (100,000 South Korean won, the equivalent of around £67)

David contrasted his experience in South Korea with his experience in the United States. In the United States, there are more restrictions on restaurants and other businesses. In many areas, businesses that are considered “non-essential” are closed and restaurants are only open for takeout. For individuals, the same sorts of restrictions are applied equally across the population. Everyone is supposed to avoid going out as much as possible and can be penalized for leaving their homes unnecessarily. However, in South Korea, restrictions are mainly for those who have or are at high risk of having Covid-19. Those who are at low risk of having the virus are allowed to go out.

When David emerged from his quarantine free of the virus, there were places for him to go. Restaurants and gyms are open. Schools are scheduled to reopen soon. When I asked him how “normal” life feels to him, he said he can go exercise at the gym or get coffee with friends like he normally would. He feels safe going out, but not extremely so. Overall, he tries to stay home more than he typically would.

Around the world, the South Korean government’s response to Covid-19 has been praised. An Israeli friend of mine, who is frustrated with the lack of economic support from her government, said she wished more countries would follow the “South Korean model”. She thinks that it is crucial that governments look out for both health and economic needs of their citizens, and applauded South Korea for doing so. However, not everyone in South Korea is so thrilled. As I was talking to David, I noticed that he tended to highlight good things about his encounters with government officials, such as receiving food and money. This, combined with the fact that he has no problem with the location and symptom tracking apps led me to believe that he was supportive of his government’s response. However, he corrected me, telling me that he and his community feel “neutral” about it. He explained that while they are grateful to be receiving support, they are frustrated that the government did not prevent the virus from spreading in the first place.

David thinks the tracking of and restrictions on those who have or are at high risk of having Covid-19 is a large part of the success South Korea has had in combating the virus. He said that the United States has “restrictions on more people but it is not working”, as they discover a large number of new cases every day. When I asked David how he felt about the location and symptom tracking apps, he said he was okay with them. He does not fear how the government might use this ability to surveil its citizens in the future. Like David, I have lived and studied in the United States. It is hard to imagine U.S. citizens allowing the government to track their every move without protesting. Similarly, a significant portion of people in Japan are not receptive to the idea. 44% of respondents to a focus group survey said they would not willingly download a location tracking app [1].

At the same time, people do not generally expect to receive the same amount of government support in the United States or Japan. Stimulus money is an unprecedented surprise in both countries. No one expects the government to send food and other supplies during periods of quarantine. People at high risk of spreading the virus have to rely on family and friends or take the chance of going buy groceries for themselves. David seemed to have relatively good interactions with the government officials he came in contact with. At the airport the quarantine officers let him stay at a hotel and gave him free food when he told them he had a migraine. In contrast, people who have recently arrived to Japan have to pay to stay in a “cardboard hotel” while they wait for their Covid-19 test results [2].

It seems that without evidence of care, government surveillance is likely to be viewed with suspicion and hostility. If people are going to willingly put apps in their phone that allow the government to track their location, they need to have some trust in the government first. South Korea demonstrates that trust can be built through providing basic needs to citizens during difficult times. If a citizen believes their government is working to take care of them, they may not worry much about what is being done with their location data. On the other hand, if a citizen does not feel supported, they are likely doubt that any surveillance measures will benefit them. For surveillance to be effectively used to fight Covid-19, citizens need to believe that it is being implemented as a way of caring for them.

[1] 欧州でも「コロナアプリ」 個人情報に配慮、接近のみ記録[2] Coronavirus: Japan airport builds cardboard ‘hotel’ for stranded travellers