Back To Top

[67th Anniversary Special] Pandemic sets off changes with lasting consequences for Korea

President Moon Jae-in holds a video summit meeting with the European Union. Cheong Wa Dae
President Moon Jae-in holds a video summit meeting with the European Union. Cheong Wa Dae

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the world and it has prompted calls for sweeping changes across society.

While its impact on South Korea has been relatively small compared to other advanced economies, the pandemic has set in motion changes that will have far reaching consequences for Korea both within and outside the country.

Larger role in international community

For South Korea, the pandemic has brought unexpected changes in the field of diplomacy.

Aided by the country’s relatively quick and effective response to the new coronavirus, South Korean leader’s interactions with world leaders have increased significantly this year. This year Moon has held about 40 telephone conversations with state leaders and heads of international organizations. In comparison, the number of telephone conversations Moon has held with heads of state between his inauguration in May 2017 and end of 2019 stood at about 70.

Cheong Wa Dae interpreted the increased frequency of telephone conversations with other leaders, many of which took place on request of Moon’s counterparts, as a sign that the country’s status in the international stage is rising.

At US President Donald Trump’s suggestion, the possibility of South Korea becoming a member of G11 or G12 – an expanded version of G7 – nations has also risen.

Although such developments could be temporary as world leaders seek partners to cooperate with while handling COVID-19 in their nations, experts say that there is more to the changes.

“(The pandemic has) had a large impact on the economies of most great powers, but middle powers such as Korea and Taiwan have dealt efficiently and sustained relatively small damages,” Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the National Korea Diplomatic Academy, said.

“As the economic downturn of great powers could continue for significant periods after the pandemic, there will come a time when the role of middle powers become more important.”

While saying that Trump’s suggestion of expanding the G7 may be partially aimed at keeping China in check, Kim said that great powers will seek a bigger role for middle powers in the economic recovery efforts after the pandemic.

Kim also sees “distance diplomacy” becoming established as a major tool in international relations.

“There are benefits to meeting in person and holding meetings, but the cost and time required is much greater,” Kim said.

“As (world leaders) have already experienced distance, online meetings, I think that there is a possibility that the two (online and offline meetings) will continue to be used together.”

Changing education landscape

Around the globe, schools on all levels have been forced to go online, and South Korean schools have been no exception, despite the country managing to avoid lockdown.

Building on the experience of holding online classes in the pandemic, the country’s education authorities plan to integrate virtual learning into the curriculum.

“Blended learning will be continued in the curriculum even when not in an infectious disease situation,” Minister of Education Yoo Eun-hae said at a recent forum on post-COVID-19 education.

Blended learning refers to using a mixture of online and offline classes, which is currently implemented in local schools, and the changes are to be included in the 2022 curriculum reform.

However, schools going online is not without problems of its own, and appears unlikely to become the norm in the near future.

According to a survey of over 50,000 teachers across the country, nearly 80 percent of the respondents felt that achievement gap between students has widened in the months online classes replaced offline classes.

While the Ministry of Education is drawing up measures to address the issue, such as using AI to analyze individual student’s needs, many of the teachers appear to believe that offline classes cannot be replaced.

In the survey, nearly 40 percent of the respondents chose classes held at school to be the best way to address the gap.

Churches focus on the basics

One of the more unlikely areas to have suffered from COVID-19 in South Korea has been religion, with major and minor cluster infections having been centered on a number of religious facilities.

Among the many religions in the country, Protestant churches – both mainstream and nonmainstream – have been affected the most, and COVID-19 has sparked discussions about churches going online.

At the height of the outbreak, the government recommended that churches refrain from offline services and to halt meetings and other events other than services.

Faced with restrictions and dangers of infection, many churches have chosen online services and cut back on customary activities such as having meals together after services and holding small group meetings.

“As with all areas of society, the church is looking at the fundamentals amid the COVID-19 crisis. Ultimately, elements that are most of the essence will be continued, and non-fundamental elements will be refrained from,” Oh Dae-sik, a pastor at God’s Will Deokso Church, said.

He said that holding services and reaching out to none believers are fundamentals that cannot be changed, while group meetings, lectures held within churches and other such activities will come to an end.

“This is the biggest change. It is true that the church has spent a lot of energy on non-fundamental elements, and in this aspect, there are positive aspects of COVID-19.”

While churches in Korea have tended to focus more on external elements such building new facilities, the current situation has highlighted more fundamental aspects of religion, such as social responsibility and the faith of individual members of the congregation.

He added that while smaller churches that lack infrastructure had concerns about going online at first, such worries have dissipated with online services highlighting the importance of content.

By Choi He-suk and Ahn Sung-mi ( (