This week, South Korea reported a record low of local infections at just four cases, a drastic improvement from February when the infection surged to 900 cases a day, leading President Moon Jae-in to issue the “highest alert” to contain the virus.
However, while the South Korean government is receiving praise for its handling of the outbreak, political analysts and human rights groups are questioning whether the surge was avoidable in the first place and looking into the alleged oppression of a religious group as the government scrambled to compensate for its inaction.
From the beginning of the outbreak, South Korea’s economic ties with China were a major factor in the government’s slow response. With China being South Korea’s largest economic counterpart, President Moon’s administration avoided issuing a travel ban on China, COVID-19’s country of origin, despite calls from the South Korean public and its medical community.
Leading this decision was Minister of Justice Choo Mi-ae who oversees immigration and customs services. Disregarding the calls of the citizens of South Korea, she cited her decision not to issue a travel ban on China as “practical” and assured the public that the ministry was proactively handling the situation. Later, in an interview she shared that Chinese Ambassador to Korea Xing Haiming recently visited her to express his gratitude for Korea’s handling of the situation, showing her decision was made largely to cater to Chinese relations.
As the number of cases in South Korea began to rise, criticism of Choo’s policy rose with it.
In February, a majority of cases were linked to religious group Shincheonji, a minority religion opposed by the mainstream Protestant powers in South Korea, who alleged that Shincheonji was purposely trying to spread the virus by concealing membership lists.
Choo found her opportunity to shoulder mounting public criticism and urged for an aggressive search and seizure of Shincheonji’s headquarters.
Despite no legal precedent for such an investigation, she cited a survey from Realmeter and South Korea’s CBS indicating 86 percent of South Korean citizens agree with the measures and called for an “all-out war” on Shincheonji. For many, this brought her consideration of public opinion into question. Critics challenged her judgment, questioning why she chose to listen to the public now and not before with regard to the travel ban. The activists alleged that Choo heeds the vox populi when it is convenient for her political position to do so.
The criticism did not remain at the grassroots level either, as media heads and politicians also contributed their opinions.
Chosun Ilbo newspaper likened an attempt to fight the outbreak without a ban on Chinese visitors to an attempt to “catch mosquitoes while keeping the windows open.” Choo was responsible for taking measures to ban travel from China, yet failed to close the “window.” When infections rose, she shifted the blame to an already marginalized religious group, as though to accuse someone who had been “bitten.”
Her actions were heavily criticized by Politician Jang Je-won, who questioned if she was still “proud” of her handling of the situation during a General Assembly of the Legislative Judicial Committee.
“To command an order for a special investigation of search and seizure on Shincheonji— that wasn’t important. In the future, for the Head of the Ministry of Justice to order prosecution and say ‘prosecute that, prosecute this’ is an extremely harmful and dangerous action. The Head of the Ministry of Justice should never be carrying out those actions,” said Jang.
As of now, the story continues to develop as human rights organizations are actively fighting to serve justice to the minority religion and increase the country’s crisis management, against Choo’s initial direction.