By Woosung Hwang
South Korea has been hailed for its swift and thorough response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the response has come at a cost, affecting the privacy and rights of the country’s citizens.
South Korea had its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on January 20th, 2020. As of June 8th, 2020, South Korea has 11,814 cases, and 273 fatalities.
The legal basis for South Korea’s response to the pandemic is the country’s Infectious Diseases Control and Prevention Act, which provides broad discretion to the Executive branch for imposing quarantines, surveilling the public, and more.
Based in part on interviews with Kuk Hyun Kwon, and Jung Hoon Yoo, partners at EJE Law, a Korean law firm that serves companies, government and financial institutions, this blog discusses the measures the government has taken in the context of the rule of law and preservation of democratic rights.
To stop the spread of COVID-19, the South Korean government adopted aggressive testing and tracing and self-isolation or quarantine early on. Two apps have been used in South Korea to trace and isolate suspected cases of COVID-19. One app is used for contact tracing, notifying individuals if they may have crossed paths with a COVID-19 patient, and encouraging them to get tested. The other app is used to monitor self-quarantine compliance. The latter was deployed on March 1, when the number of self-quarantined individuals — suspected COVID-19 cases — in South Korea exceeded 30,000.
The government has emphasized that strong adherence to self-quarantine was a citizen’s responsibility in times of public health crisis. And the quarantine campaign has been touted as as successful by the government in that new cases were stabilized and contained, thanks to the high participation of the general public.
However, the heavy surveillance has drawn criticisms among the public, as disclosure of personal location information was seen as violating basic human rights and personal privacy. The methods used to collect and aggregate information require further scrutiny and tailoring to ensure that the privacy rights of individuals are not infringed.
That is, the current provisions of infectious disease prevention and enforcement ordinances are vague in terms of protecting the privacy rights of data subjects. For example, the information gathered from the public by different government branches and organizations is just designated as “important information about national health” and lacks determinacy and transparency.
Yoo went so far as to say “It looks like we’re living at the end of privacy. To prevent the spread of infectious diseases according to the state of emergency, legal bases were established for [scrutinizing] information and [travel of] persons.” The general public, he said, sees this as inevitable, though there are some criticisms: “There are concerns that the government seeks a lot of personal information and that the individual has few safeguards.”
Information disclosed about quarantined individuals is also subject to questionable privacy standards. “The issue of excessive disclosure of the reason for the quarantine has been raised several times, but nothing has changed,” Yoo said.
Discrimination revealed, but basic democratic institutions intact
“Infectious disease usually reveals discrimination and exclusion in relation to a specific class, group or patient,” Kwon said. “In fact, the infectious disease record is a history of exclusion and discrimination, as well as a history of stigma against patients with infectious diseases.”
Previous experiences with other disease outbreaks and disasters have unified the general public in South Korea with respect to the importance of a healthy and secure society which requires collective efforts and sacrifices. Nonetheless, the increased overall security does not mean that we the lives of all members of society are given equal respect. Indeed, prizing security can be used to create excessive fear, and discrimination against specific religious minorities or persons of specific national origins.
Nonetheless, despite some rights infringements, the right to self-governance has remained intact in South Korea. On April 15th, amid the raging pandemic, the country had a National Assembly election without seeing a resurgence of infection. Kwon called this a success of the government and the people to protect both health and suffrage.
As schools and other institutions are re-opened, South Korea now faces a new set of challenges in balancing security with respect for everyone’s equal rights.
Woosung Hwang is CEO of DITO JNB and a faculty collaborator at the Neuromodulation Center and the Principles and Practice of Clinical Research. Dr. Hwang studied at Lomonosov Moscow State University and Boston College and trained at Harvard Medical School and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.