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[Kim Seong-kon] Korea’s image battered by coronavirus outbreak

Until the recent outbreak of the new coronavirus, South Korea’s reputation in the international community could not have been better. For the past few decades, Samsung, LG, and Hyundai have significantly upgraded the image of South Korea. So have BTS and, more recently, the Academy Award-winning film “Parasite.” In addition to Hallyu that has enchanted young people on foreign soils, many countries have watched the spectacular economic success of South Korea with admiration and awe as well.

After the outbreak of COVID-19, however, all those accomplishments seem to have gone down the drain instantly and the image of South Korea has shattered irrevocably. It is a shame that the fame and popularity of South Korea built by K-pop, K-film, and K-soccer for the past few years is crumbled by the pandemic called the novel corona virus. Alas! Today, foreigners deride South Korea as “South Corona” or “Corona Corea.”

The image of Korea is not the only thing that goes down rapidly. The Korean economy, too, is experiencing an unprecedented crisis due to COVID-19, which is especially devastating to South Korea, whose economy heavily depends on international trade. We can only hope that the world economy recuperates as quickly as possible and everything goes back to normal in short order. Otherwise, this new pandemic will cripple the Korean economy seriously and as a result, even big corporations will be doomed to fall dominoes.

According to the press, more than 100 countries either ban or impose restrictions on the entry of those who fly in from South Korea. The once-coveted South Korean passports, with which one could travel to almost any country on Earth without a visa, have now sadly become a certified ticket for refusal of entry or confinement for quarantine. The once proud Koreans, too, have now become an object to shun in the international community, as if they were potential coronavirus carriers.

In the past, foreigners welcomed the Korean people with respect and veneration. Thus, Koreans proudly said, “I’m from Korea.” These days, however, Koreans are reluctant to reveal their nationality because foreigners will likely view them with suspicion and try to avoid them as if they were deadly virus transmitters. In the States, Korean Americans suffer such social stigma because in the eyes of Americans, they may have visited Korea lately. In fact, a Korean American living in Washington State turned out to be a coronavirus patient after her recent visit to Daegu.

Our irresponsible and inept politicians should take the full responsibility for the unprecedented misery and discomfiture of the Korean people. The safety of the Korean people, not political considerations, should have been their primary concern in the first place. Surely, they could have prevented the epidemic if they had quickly enforced appropriate measures in the beginning. Now it is too late. Still, however, they stubbornly refuse to take action and let the epidemic become more widespread.

When the first death from COVID-19 occurred in the States, President Trump immediately held a press conference with his concerned cabinet members, including the secretary of health and human services and the director of the CDC. On the contrary, when the first coronavirus-related death was reported in Korea, our politicians did not do anything. At the press conference, American politicians showed that America cared for the loss of even one life. Regrettably, South Korean politicians did not.

No country is immune from the novel coronavirus pandemic. The west coast of the United States is especially vulnerable due to its large Asian communities and its massive influx of international travelers. So are big cities such as San Francisco, LA, New York and Washington, DC. The US government announced that it would “screen travelers from countries at high risk of coronavirus before boarding and after arrival,” mentioning Iran, Italy, and South Korea. If you turn on CNN, you can find the same news streaming on the screen. It is a shame that South Korea is included among the three most dangerous countries on Earth to travel, excluding China. For the unprecedented dishonor and humiliation Koreans are experiencing, they should blame their hopelessly unable and untrustworthy politicians.

Today, Koreans overseas suddenly find themselves denied and shunned by other countries. Confined to a solitary room for quarantine or refused at the port of entry and returning to the plane they just got off, Koreans cannot but help wondering, “What have we done to deserve this kind of humiliating treatment?” Then they realize that their selfish and clumsy politicians caused this unbearable humiliation and disgrace.

Seizing political power, our politicians pompously promised a paradise, saying, “Soon you will see a country you have never experienced.” Now, people retort, “Indeed, we are now living in a humiliated country that we have never experienced.” We can only hope we will overcome this deadly pandemic soon and South Korea can restore its positive image in the world.


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.
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