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People wait at an airport in South Korea.

‘My home country pushed me away’: how returning expats became South Korea’s pandemic scapegoats

When Yuna (not her real name), a South Korean living in France, returned to Korea for a visit in the early July 2021, she and her two children had to quarantine for two weeks in a small studio. She was fully vaccinated, but exemptions that allow people to quarantine outside official facilities only apply to people visiting direct family members, and she did not have any.

Yuna developed a fever in quarantine and was taken to hospital in a special vehicle reserved for returnees – people in quarantine cannot take public transport. At the hospital, she was given her prescription at the entrance and asked to leave.

“I couldn’t help but cry at night,” she said in a recent interview. “It was like my home country pushed me away.”

Another South Korean living France, who is fully vaccinated and had been through the two-week quarantine, said she was asked to leave a restaurant by a waiter on a recent visit. She was told her presence would make other diners uncomfortable. Why? She had written her address in France on the entry list, revealing that she was visiting from abroad.

South Korea has been widely praised for its handling of the pandemic, though it is now experiencing a surge in infections due to the Delta variant. But for Koreans living overseas, the country’s response to coronavirus has been hard to manage, and their presence has been frequently politicised.

Border politics

In January 2020, when coronavirus was sweeping through the Chinese province of Wuhan, the public largely disagreed with the government’s initial decision not to close borders with China. The controversy became more acute cases rose and other countries including Japan and the US suspended visas for South Koreans.

Even back then, returning migrants were a concern, especially students studying overseas. As the virus surged in the US and Europe, many began to return to Korea, representing a significant share of new infections in the country: 41 out of 105 on March 29, 2020. Public opinion became hostile, even more so as returning students were considered largely to be children of the wealthy.

Elderly people receive the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre as part of vaccinations for senior citizens over 75 years old
South Korea’s vaccine rollout has been slower than many other wealthy countries’. Chung Sung-Jun/AFP

In late March 2020, the government introduced a strict procedure guiding arrivals, who were taken from the airport to a testing centre, then to registered isolation accommodation without contacting any other people. The government considered imposing electronic wristbands on people coming from abroad. During this time, the media, frequently accused returnees of propagating the virus and undermining public order.

One migrant who returned to Korea in May 2020 recalls of this period: “There was panic everywhere. My friends and even family members avoided me because I had returned from abroad.”

Going all-in on the K-treatment

In the summer of 2020, focus moved away from returnees as it had become clear that Covid-19 was omnipresent and that South Korea had successfully addressed the situation. In contrast to other countries, the number of daily new cases stayed mostly below 100, without any need for lockdown.

Supplies of masks, a source of panic early in the pandemic, improved such that everyone could now wear their own KF94 mask, the equivalent of the American N95. Yet borders were still in play. Sending masks to people abroad was first strictly prohibited, then allowed between direct family members as supply improved.

President Moon Jae-In’s government and the media branded this improvement as “the K-quarantine model”, a phrase intended to resonate with the global success of K-pop and K-drama, as the Western media praised the country’s coronavirus response.

The government and the media also urged the nation to devote its resources to develop the “K-treatment” and national vaccines for Covid-19. These enthusiasts did not know that foreign vaccines were on the horizon, whereas the “K-treatment” was not.

The Korean triumph was called into question as early as November 2020 as foreign vaccines began to succeed in clinical trials, with some becoming available from early 2021. The administration had failed to make contracts with the pharmaceutical firms except for AstraZeneca, of which a Korean firm was part of the production line.

The global controversy over the AstraZeneca vaccine’s safety in early 2021 intensified the criticism and confusion in South Korea. In contrast to other countries, the government immediately authorised the AstraZeneca vaccine for people older than 60, but many people hesitated and chose to wait for Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, which were often perceived to be safer because they have not raised the same concerns over blood clots. Yet even with this widespread reluctance, supply of vaccines did not meet demand.

As overseas migrants received these vaccines abroad while the campaign in South Korea stagnated, criticisms mounted once more. The government decided not to recognise vaccination certificates issued abroad, because they were not seen as reliable. So people vaccinated in South Korea were free to travel internationally and return to Korea with a negative PCR test result, but those who had been vaccinated overseas still had to go through quarantine, even if they’d received the more “desirable” vaccines.

This chart shows the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases per day in South Korea. This is shown as the seven-day rolling average
OurWorldinData, CC BY

Recently, as the delta variant has surged, the demand for further control of returnees has increased. The message is once again that the South Koreans who have lived overseas will disturb public order by acting recklessly.

On one hand, the government again reinforced constraints, such as limiting private gatherings or restricting restaurants’ business hours. On the other hand, to encourage the vaccination, it eased the restrictions for wholly vaccinated people. This incentive still concerns only people vaccinated in the country.

Debate over the rights of South Koreans who have been living abroad has been a significant feature of domestic politics throughout the pandemic. The result of this politicisation of overseas migrants has brought into question one of the citizenship rights South Koreans have long taken for granted – the right to return “home”.

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