Human Rights Concerns in South Korea’s Pandemic Response

Mark Hopkins

South Korea gained international recognition last year for its efforts in handling the initial outbreak of COVID-19 with its impressive testing regimen and an extensive system of contact tracing helping to bring the spread of coronavirus under relatively swift control. These initial efforts, however, were not entirely without controversy. The contact tracing system, which relies upon the use of mobile phone data, surveillance camera footage, and credit card transactions, resulted in public alerts (sent to all registered mobile phones) that provided detailed location histories of those infected, along with their age and gender. Privacy advocates expressed concern that many infected people could be (and had been) identified by members of the general public given the detailed nature of the information released by authorities. The chair of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, Choi Young-ae, also questioned whether such “excessive disclosure” was in fact harming broader efforts to contain the spread of the virus. The government has since stopped revealing an infected person’s age, gender, and nationality, although Human Rights Watch noted in its 2020 World Report that significant privacy concerns remain.


The controversy surrounding the authorities handling of the virus has recently resurfaced, with the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s March 17 directive ordering all foreign workers to be tested for coronavirus drawing harsh criticism from several quarters. A number of embassies raised formal complaints with both local and national authorities, and the British ambassador went so far as to release a video on Twitter stating that “the British Embassy has made clear to the national government and to the Seoul and Gyeonggi administrations, that we consider these measures are not fair, they are not proportionate, nor are they likely to be effective.” The National Human Rights Commission also announced that it was investigating whether the directive violated the human rights of foreigners. Faced with this public backlash, along with a request to withdraw the directive by the national authority in charge of pandemic control efforts, the Seoul government announced on March 19 that it would amend the order, instead merely “recommending” that all foreign workers be tested for the virus.


This episode raises some important concerns regarding the nature of xenophobic and discriminatory attitudes towards foreigners in Korea. Most significant, perhaps, is that given the noisy intervention of the foreign community (backed up by several Western embassies) protesting Seoul’s directive, the real target of this particular order has been obscured: the migrant labour community. Despite the backdown of the Seoul and Incheon governments, on March 19 regional authorities in provinces including Gyeonggi, Gangwon, North Gyeongsang, and South Jeolla–regions that are home to large numbers of migrant labourers–are continuing to mandate compulsory tests for all foreign workers. Given the vulnerability of these workers, and their governments’ relative lack of diplomatic heft in comparison to Western nations, it has not been possible to generate the level of opposition that resulted in a winding back of the same orders in regions populated with a higher number of Western, white-collar workers.


Currently, South Korea hosts around 248,000 migrant workers through its rigidly controlled and highly exploitative Employment Permit System (EPS), along with approximately 398,000 undocumented migrant workers. These workers, predominantly from South and Southeast Asia, face widespread discrimination at both official and unofficial levels, despite Korea’s growing need for a sustainable migration program in the face of population decline. A Reuters investigation last year uncovered, for example, that at least 522 Thais have died in South Korea since 2015.


The blatant discrimination manifests in the order that all foreign workers undergo mandatory testing only serves to reinforce xenophobic attitudes, particularly towards non-Western migrants. Such developments are concerning, especially given efforts over the past decade or so to promote multiculturalism at home, as well as a more recent push to strengthen ties with South and Southeast Asia through the Moon Jae-in administration’s New Southern Policy. While one Democratic Party lawmaker voiced concern at the embarrassing impact the Seoul government’s directive would have on Korea’s international standing, such fears appear to be conspicuously absent when the targets of discrimination are more marginalised social groups.


The missteps of the Seoul authorities have thus inadvertently served to shine a light on some of the less salient aspects of South Korea’s global engagement – or at least ones that fail to gather the same level of attention as the much-celebrated Korean Wave (Hallyu). Hopefully, the continued exposure to such discrimination can continue to generate support for a shift in attitudes towards migrant workers.


Mark Hopkins is a master’s student at the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University.