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New Yorker: the Comforts of South Korea’s Coronavirus Response

Asked why I moved from the United States to South Korea, I often say that it was because I wanted to live in the First World. Though it began as a half joke, this response has recently gained a new and discomfiting plausibility. Visiting Americans always express envy at Seoul’s subway system, perhaps the finest in the world, and also at a host of other major pieces of infrastructure and minor everyday conveniences unimaginable back home. Still, just a few weeks ago, when I was receiving concerned messages about the coronavirus outbreak here from friends, family, and even editors, it was possible to believe American life was the safer, more stable option over all—a belief that the pandemic’s Stateside rampage has made untenable.

covid-19 has been unavoidable in the Korean news media since the country’s first confirmed case, in late January. “Kim Eo-jun’s News Factory,” a radio program I listen to every weekday morning, now leads with nothing else, though the improving domestic situation has widened the show’s purview to include other countries’ coronavirus struggles. On some days, the show incorporates clips of speeches by American officials, from the Centers for Disease Control and other organizations, praising South Korea’s testing and containment strategies and asking why the United States can’t replicate them. Kim, the program’s outspoken host, has more than once followed up with this comment: “Don’t you think we’re a developed nation now?,” spoken with a faintly startled satisfaction, as if he’d only just realized that fact himself.

Of course, Kim doesn’t say “developed nation”: he uses the Korean word seonjinguk, a term for the advanced countries of the world, as opposed to all the hujinguklagging behind. Though South Korea has been seen for well over a decade as one of the most strenuously impressive of all seonjinguk—with its unceasing production of pop-music spectacles, its “wiredness” across all sectors of society, its recently demonstrated ability to clean up at the Academy Awards—South Koreans themselves have a tendency to see their country as, in essence, still a hujinguk. A Korean friend, a prominent economist, once described this to me as a national inferiority complex; it flares up in times of disaster, such as the 2014 sinking of the M.V. Sewol, the kind of accident seen as embarrassingly characteristic of an underdeveloped society.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.