Yet Another Disaster for Seoul

Most days over the last three weeks, South Koreans have woken up to troubling news about the spread of MERS. More infections, more school closures, more people quarantined. Authorities even isolated the entire village of Jangdeok, 150 miles south of Seoul, in a county known more for spicy red pepper paste than the infectious foreign agent authorities call Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

MERS was first detected in South Korea last month after a 68-year-old man returned with the virus from a trip to the Middle East. He went through four hospitals over nine days before being confirmed on May 20 as having the infection. By Friday, there were eleven deaths, more than 120 confirmed cases and more than 3,600 people under quarantine.

The effect of the outbreak is far subtler than the fear-mongering local media would have us believe. Anxiety has closed schools and stopped the buses that shuttle students between homes and their myriad extracurricular classes — yet children are enjoying the unexpected vacation, an acquaintance in a wealthy suburb here told me. My father, a doctor, scoffs at news reports of panic, noting that he is seeing a steady number of patients as usual; only some appear too scared to visit medical clinics. Two restaurants owned by a friend’s mother in the theater district, around the corner from a quarantine center, that were deserted earlier this week are already getting busier.

But while the public has been coping well enough with MERS, the administration of President Park Geun-hye has bungled its response, further undermining confidence in a government already reeling from a string of failures. In South Korea under Ms. Park, government mismanagement is a rule, not an exception.

Most significantly, the administration has yet to recover from its mishandling of the Sewol ferry sinking more than a year ago, which took the lives of 304 people, most of them teenagers, and shook faith in public safety to the core. Many citizens, including the families of the Sewol victims, blame the government for fumbling rescue efforts and are unsatisfied with the official investigation. Far more lives could have been saved, they say. And though crew members and officials from the ferry company have been prosecuted, an independent commission meant to investigate the disaster has come to a standstill because of political interference.

Criticism of the government has become sharper and more emotionally charged. At a protest just before the first anniversary of the Sewol sinking, the mother of one victim screamed before having her hair publicly shorn, shouting: “The Republic of Korea is rotten!” At an event commemorating the tragedy, the writer Ryu Yong-ju recited his poem “Detain the State” to a teary audience: “Rotten all the way to the root and branches / Please first detain the state.”

The mishandling of MERS only amplifies such damning sentiments, given the parallels between the government’s Sewol rescue operation and its attempt to contain the outbreak: As with the ferry disaster, there was an inept early response to MERS. As the disease spread, the government stubbornly refused to disclose pertinent information to the public. And even when the government finally released on June 7 — 18 days after the first case surfaced — the list of 24 hospitals that had confirmed cases of MERS, the list was riddled with errors. This prompted a columnist at South Korea’s largest daily newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, to assert that the government had lost all credibility, and to ask, “Who will trust and follow it?”

That pointed criticism from a conservative newspaper ordinarily friendly to Ms. Park was a sign of the anger that has spread across the political spectrum. In one recent poll, Ms. Park’s approval rating, in decline since she took office in early 2013, sunk to 33 percent.

This perception of incompetence has been fed by other government blunders. From the revelation of the National Intelligence Service’s interference in the 2012 presidential election to corruption allegations against eight prominent politicians — including the former prime minister, Lee Wan-koo, who resigned in April after only two months in office — the country has endured a succession of scandals.

The lack of trust in the Park administration is why even a decision as mundane as using heat-sensing cameras and thermometers at the Blue House, the president’s residence and office, to keep MERS at bay elicited widespread derision on social media. Deploying the equipment, which can detect fevers in visitors, was seen as evidence that Ms. Park placed her own protection above the needs of her people. She also resisted calls to postpone a visit to the United States, scheduled for Sunday, but finally bowed to popular pressure and canceled the trip.

Government ineptitude has laid bare some uncomfortable truths. South Korea, as seen from the outside, is indeed that rare country that transitioned from poverty and dictatorship to affluence and democracy in a miraculously short time. Yet it is viewed by many people here as a crony capitalist state run by corrupt elites who have monopolized power and the national economy, fostering government incompetence and popular distrust of the state.

Nevertheless, South Koreans, who have a long history of political and social turbulence, including previous spates of political scandals and man-made disasters as well as an endless state of war against North Korea, know how to handle calamity with a certain aplomb.

Ms. Park almost got it right when she remarked recently that “MERS will come to an end in the near future if everyone, including the government and the medical community, comes together to address the situation with full force.” MERS will be contained, sooner or later, by medical professionals. But Ms. Park’s government has yet to show that it is equipped to lead the country out of this crisis or any other.

Se-Woong Koo is the editor-in-chief of Korea Exposé, an online magazine specializing in the Korean Peninsula. He is writing a book on contemporary South Korean society and politics.

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