South Korea’s Strategic COVID-19 Response

Topic: Public Policies
Words: 1662 Pages: 6


It is important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic had a massive impact on the global economy, politics, public health, and socio-cultural elements. Various countries were struck by the virus differently, which evidently led to differential responses. Although some nations were able to minimize the threat and damage of the outbreak, others were not as successful. The given strategic crisis leadership assessment will primarily focus on South Korea’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak with accentuation to the senior leaders’ performance on guiding and navigating the national government in order to properly contain the virus.

Sense Making

In the case of sense making, South Korea’s response and strategic crisis leadership can be categorized at the more effective end of the spectrum of all observed responses. It is stated: “building on its experience handling Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), South Korea was able to flatten the epidemic curve quickly without closing businesses, issuing stay-at-home orders, or implementing many of the stricter measures adopted by other high-income countries until late 2020” (Kim et al. 2021, para. 1). In other words, South Korea’s outstanding performance in regards to minimizing the dire public health impacts was rooted in the fact that the given country had already experienced a high-risk virus outbreak previously, which allowed the government to have a more tactical and strategic crisis leadership. It is important to point out that the South Korean government already had a dedicated and well-funded health authority called the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), or alternatively called the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). It is stated that KDCA “decided to raise the level of infectious disease alert to “red,” which is the highest level, on 23 February” (Jeong et al. 2020, p. 4). Therefore, the governmental leadership was rather quick and immediate, where the threat was perceived as a serious danger to the country’s well-being by assigning red-level alert, whereas other nations were only beginning discussing lockdowns.

Decision Making and Coordinating

The decision-making and coordination during the pandemic in a timeframe of interest of South Korea shows that the country was among the very first ones to implement social distancing measures. Although these decisions were coordinated on the basis of previous local MERS experiences, which made them less strict, such an approach incentivized and “led to substantial interest in their “test, trace, isolate” strategy” (Dighe et al., 2020, p. 321). In other words, the combination of previous encounters with dangerous viruses and quick decision-making strategies in the face of the crisis put the South Korean government’s senior leaders in a position where they had to be proactive rather than reactive to the outbreak. The COVID-19 pandemic was primarily managed under the leadership of Park Neung-hoo, a health minister, who was appointed and nominated by President Moon in 2017. Both the president and health minister were highly proactive at operating in two directions, where, firstly, they integrated quick social distancing and testing measures, and secondly, they began aggressively expanding the hospital beds available for the infected (Kim 2020, para. 10). In other words, there was a clear and evident decision making preparedness and tight coordination between the president and the ministry of health of South Korea in regards to effectively responding to the COVID-19.

As a result of a quick response, relying on national medicine as a factor that reduces the risks of unpredictable developments, the government could afford not to stop the activities of most commercial enterprises and institutions to avoid the closure of borders. The administrative methods themselves are mostly not punitive measures but an appeal to the ability of South Koreans to consciously act in accordance with government recommendations. The creation of an all-encompassing network of accessible testing centers based on a huge number of hospitals, public information about the foci of the spread of COVID-19, while abandoning the strict regulation of movement around the country, induce the majority of the population to trust the recommendations of the authorities regarding wearing masks and observing social distance.

Meaning Making

In the case of meaning making, it is important to factor in the timeline of the first cases of infections. South Korea was among the very first countries after China to officially announce its initial cases of coronavirus infections, which was confirmed on January 20, 2020 (Cha 2020, para. 1). Although the international community and governments were still observing and discussing the scope and scale of the danger of the virus, the South Korean government’s senior leaders issued key measures with an emphasis on the national organization, public-private sector cooperation, transparency, speed, and early intervention (Cha 2020, para. 3). In other words, the South Korean leaders’ response was an immediate one, and the most outstanding aspect of such an approach is arguably transparency. Both the president and minister of health were open about the fact that the coronavirus can be as dangerous as or even more dangerous than MERS, which removed any form of reluctance or hesitancy of overanalyzing the proper response measures. In addition, previous encounters with a dangerous virus, such as MERS, meant that the country and government already had protocols of actions for viral outbreak crisis situations. Therefore, the meaning of the leadership’s performance can be understood through the combination of experience and transparency. The latter is a critical element of ensuring that the general public understands and becomes aware of the scale of the danger, which enables a better national organization, and imposing such an organization was a major challenge across many nations.


In regards to accounting to the performance metrics, the main answer can also be found in the previously discussed transparency of data and the overall situation of the crisis. The public comprised of South Korean citizens were able to see the surges and declines in real-time through early integration of various on-platform and online information provisions. It is stated that South Korea was among high-risk nations due to its close relations with China, but the accounting to the crisis progressions and senior leaders’ actions allowed the nation to avoid even direr consequences. Therefore, accounting for the strategic responses and threat scales was possible South Korea achieved solid damage minimization “through timely development and approval of a functioning diagnostic test, frequent dissemination of information and public resources, heightened border control, and meticulous contact mapping through patient questionnaires and GPS-based mobile applications” (Cha 2020, para. 4). In other words, it is evident that the leadership accounted for all possible negative outcomes, and transparency played a significant role in ensuring that the numbers and statistics are available to the public.


One might argue that the learning element of South Korea’s response to the crisis through its strategic and timely measures is among the most prominent. Not only the given country learned throughout navigating through the pandemic, but it also learned from its previous experience with MERS. In other words, both the public and government leaders were aware of the potential dangers viruses pose, and thus, they were not hesitant to both comply and act without reluctance, respectively. It is important to note that South Korea already had a well-established and well-structured healthcare system, and the health department had prepared protocols of action for potential viral threats and crises, which put the country at a higher end of the learning spectrum. In addition, although South Korea’s close ties and relations to China came with risks, the leaders were also eager to learn from Wuhan’s case, which is why the threat was perceived as a national emergency of the red category early on. Thus, the leadership was not merely focusing on predefined plans, but also utilizing correct mindset for future developments (D’Auria and De Smet 2020, p. 2). Therefore, the learning element of South Korea’s senior leaders and government’s performance is manifested in the fact that it had necessary prerequisites, preparedness as well as eagerness to observe.

The Republic of Korea was one of the first to face the spread of the virus, following China in February 2020, but the number of infections declined in April (Her 2020, p. 684). Fairly noting that the country’s leadership has abandoned the introduction of large-scale quarantine measures, a number of experts are focusing attention on the authorities’ strict tracing of contacts of patients with coronavirus, along with the widespread use of testing and prompt provision of medical care, while emphasizing the positive role of administrative measures by the country’s leadership. Indeed, in the context of the fight against the pandemic, administrative capabilities based on a high level of self-organization and discipline of South Koreans are of great importance. However, the measures taken, having played an initially positive role, could not guarantee a victory over the coronavirus.


In conclusion, it is important to point out that South Korea is far from a success story in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic and its relevant strategic response to the crisis. However, its senior leader’s approach and the government’s leadership are indicative of how quick and full-scale measures can be highly effective in minimizing the damage that the virus can cause, which shows the elevated degree of performance. It is worth noting that with the increase in the number of cases, the South Korean government began to introduce a number of restrictions, such as a ban on public events, the closure of educational institutions, and places of a special gathering of people. From this point of view, all these indicators are nothing more than a correct, for the most part, approach to how the structure of communication between the state and citizens should be built in a pandemic. It is worth taking an example from South Korea, including countries of large size, because now it is important to observe all really working security measures and not to encourage a negligent attitude towards the lives of others. In other words, the case when the mentality of the nation has reached such a level that there is practically no equal in the struggle of Koreans against the coronavirus.


Cha, Victor. 2020. “A Timeline of South Korea’s Response to COVID-19.” CSIS. Web.

D’Auria, Gemma, Aaron De Smet. 2020. “Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges.” McKinsey & Company, Web.

Dighe, Amy, Lorenzo Cattarino, Gina Cuomo-Dannenburg, Janetta Skarp, Natsuko Imai, Sangeet Bhatia, Katy Gaythorpe, et al. 2020. “Response to COVID-19 in South Korea and implications for lifting stringent interventions.” BMC Medicine 18: 321.

Her, Minyoung. 2020. “How Is COVID-19 Affecting South Korea? What Is Our Current Strategy?” Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness 14 (5): 684-686.

Jeong, Eunsun, Munire Hagose, Hyungul Jung, Moran Ki, Antoine Flahault. 2020. “Understanding South Korea’s Response to the COVID-19 Outbreak: A Real-Time Analysis.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17 (24): 1-18.

Kim, Cynthia. 2020. “South Korea’s Moon warns of toughest COVID-19 curbs after two days of record cases.” Reuters, Web.

Kim, June-Ho, Julia Ah-Reum An, Seung Ju Jackie Oh, Juhwan Oh, Jong-Koo Lee. 2021. “Emerging COVID-19 success story: South Korea learned the lessons of MERS.” Our World in Data. Web.

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