The United States and South Korea sit on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the successful containment of COVID-19. As South Korea enters its second wave of infections and the United States rides out a protest-ridden quarantine, a central debate has developed around public safety versus personal privacy, most notably in relation to LGBTQ rights.
In the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, South Korea responded with rapid quarantine measures, public safety campaigns, and a precision test and trace method now called the “K-quarantine Model.” The ability to mass mobilize public and private sectors with limited public dissent plays, in large part, to South Korea’s experience handling similar respiratory epidemics, such as MERS in 2015 and SARS in 2002, as well as the unilateral structure of many national institutions leftover from its authoritarian past. South Korean citizens are willing to relinquish certain rights to slow the COVID-19 pandemic: Their privacy, freedom of movement, and a willingness to wear protective masks have all contributed to the success of the K-quarantine Model.
The United States has fumbled its way through the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic with a patchwork of state quarantines across the nation that has worn down the patience and pockets of the American people. For a country that is notoriously individualistic and passionate about individual rights, resentment over government lockdowns has bubbled to the surface resulting in protests and hostile rhetoric across the nation.
So where should the line be drawn between public safety and personal privacy and how is South Korea’s LGBTQ community reshaping this conversation?
The 2003 declassification of homosexuality as “harmful and obscene” abolished the censorship of LGBTQ materials and allowed for LGBTQ information to flow in South Korea, yet attitudes have been slow to change particularly with religious conservatives and those over 30. South Korea currently has no national laws preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, placing them near the bottom of the list of OECD countries in regard to LGBTQ inclusivity.
The latest outbreak, known as the Itaewon cluster, is the first COVID-19 supercluster to predominantly affect a minority group with limited legal rights. Itaewon is a thriving bar and nightclub neighborhood within the capital of Seoul, located near the former U.S. Yongsan military base. It is home to a vibrant international population where race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation are openly displayed and accepted. On April 30, a young man visited several bars and clubs in the Itaewon district, six days later he tested positive for COVID-19. In the days following, over 46,000 people who either visited Itaewon between April 30 and May 6 or had contact with someone that did, were tested. As of May 22, 215 new cases have been confirmed and linked to the Itaewon cluster. How South Korea handles the Itaewon cluster will determine the utility of the K-quarantine Model and its ability to be exported to countries where LGBTQ populations face harsh social discrimination with few legal protections.
This outbreak is similar to South Korea’s initial COVID-19 outbreak in February 2020 that was linked to a single member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. The government was able to use an aggressive track and test method to bring the spread under control. The success of this method is based on transparency. When a new COVID-19 case is confirmed, the age, gender, movement, neighborhood, and in some cases the occupation or last name of the infected individual is made public. Additionally, a mass COVID-19 alert notification is sent via mobile phone to people who may have been in contact with that individual as well as to residents in their neighborhood.
The Itaewon cluster introduces a new, complicating, dynamic to this methodology: homophobia.
South Korean news media have placed a particular emphasis on linking the Itaewon cluster to the LGBTQ community, thereby perpetuating a false stigma that any positive COVID-19 test from the cluster is synonymous with the individual being gay. During the initial testing of individuals related to the Itaewon cluster, numerous South Korean citizens found themselves being outed by either the press or by the transparent government oversight related to testing. In a country where there are no protections for sexual minorities, the idea of being listed in public government records as LGBTQ is insurmountable and can lead to long-term negative social effects with little legal recourse. Both domestic and international organizations have taken notice that South Korea’s lack of anti-discrimination laws are now affecting public safety as the country responds to COVID-19.
The consequences of poor progress on protective laws for minority groups in South Korea are disrupting the entire nation. Groups, such as the LGBTQ community and undocumented immigrants, are hesitant to be tested and frustrating efforts to bring the outbreak under control. The South Korean government’s reaction is to take a harsher stance on non-reporting by placing a fine of $1,630 on those who visited Itaewon and have not self-identified and been tested for COVID-19. Several provinces have placed QR code scanners at the entrances of bars, nightclubs, karaoke, and other places of business to create an accurate government log of who has been where. The use of Bluetooth technology is also under consideration in combination with credit card and mobile phone data tracking as tools to monitor and control the spread of COVID-19.
South Korea’s K-quarantine Model has been hailed across the globe for its ability to stem COVID-19. In a recent Nikkei Asian Review article, Minister Sung Yun Mo was quoted saying, “International standardization of the K-quarantine model will boost our [South Korea’s] reputation all over the world as well as help us lead the bio industry in the global market.”
However, with any model, the greatest test is whether or not the model is transferable. A closer look at South Korea’s model unveils an authoritarian-like violation of privacy for the sake of public safety. As a temporary measure, the K-quarantine model may be an effective way to contain COVID-19; it may also be a gateway to a permanent increase of government oversight and surveillance. South Korea is now grappling with a serious question: Is it possible for minority groups to survive potential lasting damages from the K-quarantine model without legal protection and reassurances?
Presently the government is attempting a new anonymous testing procedure, in addition several LGBTQ nonprofit organizations have come forward to offer their own anonymous testing including: Chingusai, Korean Lawyers for Public Interest and Human Rights, Solidarity of University and Youth Queer Societies in Korea, and Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea. National government officials have aknowledged and admonished the harsh discrimination against LGBTQ individuals by regional leadership and Christian publications. In conjunction, Hong Seok Cheon, the only openly gay celebrity in South Korea, has spoken out to encourage LGBTQ individuals to put their fears of being outed aside and do their national duty to get tested. Without legal protection, none of these strategies have been effective in mitigating the fears of LGBTQ individuals have about getting tested. As such, the K-quarantine model may not be transferable to countries that do not have equal and protective rights for minority populations due to its authoritarian-like test and trace model that requires the release of private information to be successful.
Prominent figures in the LGBTQ community fear that the backlash from the Itaewon cluster will hamper efforts for the LGBTQ movement to progress. However, COVID-19 and the K-quarantine model may not be the nail in the coffin, so to speak, on LGBTQ rights in South Korea. In fact, it could mean the resurgence of the LGBTQ movement.
With 90 percent of South Koreans in support of anti-discrimination employment protections for sexual minorities, and the government facing a public safety backlash due to the lack of minority protection, the Itaewon cluster could be the driving force to finally push the Anti-Discrimination Law through the South Korean National Assembly after a decade of failing to be brought to a vote.
Social justice movements in South Korea are happening synchronously. As a young democracy of a mere 33 years, the social justice scene in South Korea is playing catch up due to domestic and global cultural pressures. Over the last decade as the country matured, there has been an explosion of social justice advocacy including feminism, disability rights, and LGBTQ rights — all jockeying for the spotlight with an intense aversion to collaboration.
COVID-19 may be the catalyst that will change the fierce competition between rights groups into a collaboration that demands anti-discrimination protection laws from the government. The South Korean government has come under fire from numerous rights groups and agencies, including the WHO, for the lack of protection for LGBTQ people which has created a population that is reluctant to come forward for testing, despite public safety concerns. International pressure in combination with a collaborative effort to utilize the current spotlight on the LGBTQ community in South Korea could be the jolt needed for South Korea to take a momentous step forward in human rights legislation.
Britt Robinson is a Masters candidate at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. She specializes in Korean peninsula affairs, global gender policy, and human rights. Prior to her graduate studies, Britt worked on the development team for Liberty in North Korea, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that assists in rescuing and resettling North Korean refugees.