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16.01.2023 Author: Semina Lada

The Republic of Korea is taking over the world using the Covid-19 pandemic

South Korea found the answer to conquering the world years ago. Taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has gone on the offensive on new fronts. While others shake their fists and brandish their missiles, the South Koreans rely on soft power – they have been promoting their culture in other countries for years. The economic benefits followed the cognitive interest of ordinary people – foreigners bought Korean goods and unwittingly invested in the Korean economy. When the pandemic struck and many countries braced for economic collapse, South Korea rode the new wave and took advantage of the situation to expand its international influence and invest in further economic prosperity.

The ROK showed remarkable adaptability to events and used the COVID-19 pandemic crisis to its advantage. The ROK’s public relations, its willingness to quickly reallocate resources to the production and export of goods in demand, and its strong scientific and technological base to respond to the new challenges played an important role.

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, South Korea followed China’s lead and did not close its borders or impose strict lockdowns. The government used modern technology to identify contacts and conduct mass testing. An algorithm for responding to such crises had been developed earlier-during the 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak-and the country’s leadership set up a special coronavirus website in English, Korean, and Chinese to provide the latest statistics and recommendations. On social media, the World Health Organization posted a video featuring interviews with the ROK Minister of Health and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Subsequently, there have been many academic articles on how the experience of ROK can be applied in other countries.

 The ROK ranks first on Cambridge College’s Covid-19 index for OECD countries. Media outlets such as BBC News, CNN, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse, and Russian news agencies have given positive ratings to the measures taken by the Korean government. Crucial to the trend was the fact that South Korea took the second-highest hit after China and was the first country to show positive results, recording a drop in the first wave of cases after just two weeks. The ROK cemented its success by holding general elections in April 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, with the highest voter turnout in 20 years (62.7%) and no increase in Covid-19 infections in the population. The country’s government actively shared its successes with the world, maintaining full openness and agreeing to support other countries. In this way, Korea became a trendsetter in the fight against the pandemic, surpassing both Europe and the US and strengthening its position on the world stage.

In parallel with the active PR campaign, South Korea has relied on the production and export of medical goods, including medical masks and test systems, which have been in short supply in many countries. In February 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Korean exports of Covid-19 diagnostic test kits were valued at $600,000, and in April they had already reached nearly $200.7 million. The export of medical masks already in February compared to the same period of 2019 increased by 2195% and amounted to $157.13 million. The share of these products in total exports is small, but the country has demonstrated that even in the dire global environment, it is possible to find points of growth.

The Republic of Korea began to actively cooperate with vaccine developers to agree to produce vaccines in the country. In parallel, the country was actively developing its own versions of coronavirus vaccines. The then President Moon Jae-in announced that the Republic of Korea planned to become one of the world’s leading vaccine hubs by 2025, and medical product manufacturing and export was listed as a priority sector. At the same time, great emphasis was placed on diversification – agreements were made to produce vaccines from different developers in the country, namely AstraZeneca (SK Bioscience), Moderna (Samsung Biologics), Novavax (SK Bioscience) approved for use in the ROK, as well as Sputnik V for export. The situation with the Russian vaccine was quite remarkable: the initial policy of maximum diversification was to secure the country against possible delays in vaccine supply from partners, and to expand potential markets by supplying the Russian vaccine to more than 70 countries where it is approved. A significant factor in favor of this decision was the fact that Russia agreed to give the full production cycle to the South Korean side, unlike other partners with whom dependence on the supply of component parts for vaccine production was maintained. GL Rapha said that Western sanctions would not prevent the company from continuing to produce Sputnik V. However, the political component defeated the economic one and as a result the vaccine was not approved for use in the country for 2 years and the Huons Global consortium, which had previously invested over $8 million in the Russian vaccine project, announced in March 2022 that it was suspending production of Sputnik V due to the “world situation”. It is worth noting that vaccines and medical devices, according to General License No. 6B of July 14, 2022, are exempt from sanctions and procurement and production arrangements should not negatively affect the South Korean partners. However, the situation was aggravated by the fact that, although the production of the vaccines themselves is an exception to the sanctions, RDIF (the Russian Direct Investment Fund), which promotes Russian vaccines abroad, is subject to sanctions and in this stalemate few appeared willing to risk being blacklisted by the US.

The first South Korean vaccine, developed by SK Bioscience Co Ltd, was not approved for use until late June 2022, after the largest waves of the disease and when more than 80% of the population had already been vaccinated with imported vaccines. But the vaccine is not a purely South Korean development; the company used technology from the University of Washington Medical School. Last March, the government of ROK purchased 10 million doses of this vaccine, but by the end of November 2022, less than one percent had been used, and Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were still preferred.

So South Korea is setting trends and trying to make the best of every situation, but it must maneuver between national economic benefits and pressure from allies by favoring investment in US and European drugs, artificially limiting its own opportunities for cooperation with Russia that could enhance existing growth potential in the ROK’s medicine and healthcare. In the meantime, South Korea is building bridges for further growth by entering into agreements with Russia, producing its own vaccine, investing in local production of imported vaccines, and opening a center to train medical professionals to produce vaccines in middle- and low-income countries. While the returns may not be that great now, where you have to agree to terms, which are not always favorable, to support “friends,” all of these seeds will bear economic fruit when the opportunity arises.

Lada Semina, Senior Researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.


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