What has ASEAN learned from South Korea’s robust response to COVID-19? How effective is South Korea’s health diplomacy and how can we deepen the ASEAN-ROK relationship in health?


The COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding against the background of a strong partnership between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, hereafter South Korea). President Moon Jae-in’s New Southern Policy has accelerated that partnership as South Korea diversifies its economy away from over-reliance on China, strikes out a non-aligned path as a middle power and engages in a more deliberate diplomacy with new allies. 

A structural lens on South Korea’s COVID-19 response provides three main lessons. One, South Korea’s testing strategy and capabilities are world leading. Tests were highly accessible and free, with South Korea pioneering drive-through testing. The rapid availability of test kits produced in industrial quantities was made possible by excellent scientists and researchers working closely with manufacturers capable of surge production, aided by an accelerated regulatory approval pathway. 

Two, South Korea deployed advanced contact tracing and public health surveillance technology. Telco data, credit card transactions and closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage combined to reconstruct a suspected patient’s movements. Short message service (SMS) alerts and digital mapping allowed the public to receive highly precise information about COVID-19 hotspots and automated contact tracing. The social contract generally accepted the privacysecurity trade-offs, with laws allowing the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) space to operate this system. 

Three, South Korea learned from the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) epidemics. Citizens, health experts, public policymakers and politicians were all invested in a holistic pandemic preparedness plan, which laid out the medical, scientific, public health, regulatory, legal, communication and public policy infrastructure needed for the next pandemic. This created a highly coordinated emergency response framework, with precise roles for scientists, doctors, political leaders in federal, state and city governments, industry as well as civil society groups in an extraordinarily decisive and effective response. 

These lessons appear straightforward, but came at the cost of South Korean lives during the epidemics of the past two decades. Unfortunately, these lessons may not be systemically communicated to ASEAN Member States (AMS). There could be several reasons. 

Firstly, the ASEAN-ROK relationship was previously more transactional and is now more strategic – there were missed opportunities for mutual and structured learning in health. Secondly, ASEAN-ROK discussions are driven by economics and security, not public health – this is consistent with the raison d’être of ASEAN in particular and global geopolitics in general. Thirdly, initial public health responses to COVID-19 were highly focused within nation-state borders, understandably leaving little time for South Korean experts to communicate globally, even if effective channels and willing audiences were present. 

Despite the structural barriers to ASEAN-ROK communication on health and COVID-19, some channels remain open. South Korean experts conducted bilateral exchanges with their counterparts in AMS. Formal and informal university networks were augmented by professional and personal links between health practitioners. Furthermore, the global media regularly featured South Korea alongside New Zealand and Taiwan as the success stories of COVID-19, allowing AMS to learn from the sidelines. 

On top of technical expertise, South Korea has donated spare capacity and funds to ASEAN. In June 2020, South Korea announced a US$5 million fund to boost ASEAN’s COVID-19 testing capability, to be administered by the ASEAN-Korea Cooperation Fund (AKCF). This was after a separate donation to the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund. Moreover, Indonesia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste are all cited as recipients of bilateral assistance from South Korea during the pandemic. A step towards this direction is in line with the ASEAN-ROK Plan of Action 2021-2025 which, according to ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi, will focus on a major collaboration in public health and health security. 

This health diplomacy (or more specifically, “test kit diplomacy”) has raised South Korea’s global profile and generated goodwill. In April 2020, as the world grappled with the science of testing and mass production of test kits, as many as 120 countries reached out to South Korea for help. Seoul created a task force to coordinate the necessary public, private, scientific, legal and regulatory effort for this extraordinary effort, with the output from surge production sent to countries around the world, including to Nigeria, the United States and even Japan. In Southeast Asia, South Korea’s overall health diplomacy is comparable to China, Japan and the United States – larger countries with a significant diplomatic and development assistance footprint in this region. 

Sadly, Southeast Asian health professionals and the public may not be aware of South Korea’s health diplomacy efforts in this region, beyond an appreciation for the excellent domestic response to COVID-19. 

There could be several reasons, chiefly the absence of a media or communications narrative. Anecdotally, Southeast Asian scientists and health experts with eyes set on Northeast Asia are in general more likely to train in Japan or China than South Korea, partially due to more opportunities, scholarships and exposure to returning senior colleagues. Therefore, COVID-19 is presenting South Korea with opportunities to incorporate health diplomacy into their broader geo-strategic goals, through stronger public messaging and enhancing their long-term scholarship and networking structure for health experts. 

This pandemic shows how health security in ASEAN is interlinked with its regional economic development and physical security. Therefore, the effectiveness of the longer-term response to COVID-19 relies on greater regional cooperation, not solely on nation-state responses within domestic borders. Initiatives like a regional travel zone, health capacity-sharing (for example, mutual recognition of health professionals or a regional vaccine stockpile) and an ASEAN Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will add layers of protection to all AMS, though these necessitate new ways of collaboration among the states. 

Currently, ASEAN lacks neutral, high stature and credible convenors for such regional integration in health. The under-staffed and under-resourced Health Division is one of 46 Divisions in the ASEAN Secretariat, indicating resource and stature gaps. Moreover, responsibility for implementing various ASEAN initiatives is delegated to member states or the rotating Chair, allowing ideology and geopolitics to play outsized roles. 

In a health-ready New Southern Policy 2.0, South Korea can play the role of catalyst, convenor or technical advisor to ASEAN’s health systems integration and capacity development. The technical excellence of South Korea, absence of historical baggage and neutrality in the US-China rivalry are in South Korea’s favour. Moreover, the country’s “Miracle on the Han River” narrative (despite a military dictatorship as recent as the 1970s) can be instructive and inspiring to AMS. There are also strong motivations for South Korea’s pivot to Southeast Asia’s health in ethics, economics and geopolitics. 

The ASEAN-ROK dialogue partnership relations and Plan of Action are easier entry points than the ASEAN Plus Three framework, given the relative weight of China and Japan. Realistically, AMS will have to first welcome South Korea before a multilateral agreement is reached between ASEAN and South Korea. 

There are three specific low-hanging fruits to pick. One, AMS can vertically integrate their health systems to respond to pandemics more decisively. Two, AMS can build the non-health public policy framework for that health system to operate in (such as privacy laws, welfare and health insurance). Three, ASEAN can then more easily integrate their systems if they are already interoperable or have similar organising principles. 

This pandemic has rightly raised the profile of the excellent South Korean public health system, providing a useful model to build on. The landscape and timing are right for greater South Korean involvement in ASEAN health security and health systems strengthening.

Khor Swee Keng reads Public Policy in University of Oxford and is Visiting Fellow in ISIS Malaysia

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