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Korea is a homogenous society. I sometimes forget how homogenous until I look down at the first floor of a department store from above and see waves of black hair with only the occasional fake blond or flaring red. Only 4.9% of our residents are immigrants, and Chinese, who share a similar culture and belief systems, account for more than half of that small percentage.
Unlike the US where people’s views are like marbles of diverse colors scattered in myriad directions, most South Koreans are culturally and ethnically homogenous. Such a homogenous group of people tends to conform to the dicta of authorities quite easily, especially when their culture upholds underlying Confucius ideals that highlight common good and deference to superiors. As it follows, it was easier–much easier–for the South Korean government to impose strict protocols from the initial stages of the outbreak than in the US, and most people in South Korea actually followed what they were told to do.
Due to frequent micro-dusts in the air, South Koreans did not find wearing masks as exhausting and demanding as many Americans have. And, South Korea had already dealt with another strand of coronavirus, MERS, in 2015. I don’t remember anyone complaining about having to wear masks wherever they went. Stores soon started to put up signs saying “No masks, no entrance,” and bigger ones measured their customers’ temperatures upon their arrival. South Korea even went on to impose a fine of up to 100,000 KRW (about 90 USD) for those who fail to wear masks in designated places starting from November 13, 2020.
A few weeks ago, I walked into Starbucks near my house to get some homework done. I paid for a chai latte and a sandwich and then turned around to grab a seat.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” the cashier called as I turned my back to her.
“Would you mind scanning your QR code?”
South Korea has been keeping track of its residents since early March. This was taken as a safety measure to track down any newly confirmed cases and notify the public before it gets out of hand. My aunt and my cousins happened to eat at the same restaurant as a COVID confirmed patient within a few day window. The government notified them via text, and their family was asked to immediately test and quarantine in their home for the following two weeks. A government official checked on them daily to ensure that they were keeping the quarantine guidelines.
A friend of mine was also asked to quarantine herself for two weeks after coming back from a boarding school in the United States in early November. The government required that she download a tracking app on her phone to ensure that she does not leave her abode for the two-week frame. The app tracks the movement of the phone and notifies a government official if the phone lies motionless for an extended period of time or if she leaves her destined quarantine station.
Despite having lived in South Korea for more than ten years, I still did not own a Korean phone number. The problem I had now, was that the QR code generated by Kakaotalk (a South Korean messenger application) required a Korean number.
Explaining my current situation, I asked her, “Can I manually write down my phone number and address instead?”
“Do you have a government-issued ID?”
Well, I’m sure that not many carry their ID around just to go to a cafe, especially for a minor like myself, whose only valid ID is their passport. I told the cashier so, to which she replied, “I’m sorry, but you can’t stay here.”
I did not know what to say. Getting kicked out of Starbucks–just because I didn’t have a Korean phone number–did not seem right. I paid for my latte, and with it, my right to spend my time here at the cafe–or so I thought, having lived in liberal, democratic, and capitalist societies for my entire life. Now, such a formula did not apply. If I could not mark my footsteps in the government system, then I did not have the right to stay anywhere.
As of November 13, there have been only a total of 487 COVID deaths in South Korea. This is a negligible number compared to 243K in the US alone and 1.29M worldwide. But then I wonder: what if South Korea did not take such restrictive measures as a response to the pandemic? And what if people did not listen to the government?
I am not sure if the so-called success of the South Korean government to contain the virus should be called entirely a “success.” Yes, less than 500 have died and in that sense, it was a huge success–but what about the soaring number of unemployed? Or our lost right to privacy? Or churches that had to turn online when bars and clubs still remained open?
The virus doesn’t follow the law and order of humans. It is certainly not democratic, and maybe borderline totalitarian. We are left with a dilemma. Should our previous glorification of individual freedom and rights be abandoned at the feet of the tyranny of the virus?
I do not know the answer to this question. But I’m sure that our answer to it, whatever it is, will have its consequences.