On 9 June 2020, General Counsel Kelly Kim participated in Law Asia Webinar on “Government Accountability during COVID-19: The Citizen’s Right to Know” and talked about South Korea’s situation.
While governments have had to adopt extraordinary measures to deal with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government’s accountability to its citizen’s cannot be avoided completely. This session explores the emergency measures adopted across different LAWASIA jurisdictions, with an emphasis on the citizen’s right to know about the spread of the virus, the containment measures adopted, and the manner in which state power is being exercised.
Mr Michael Tidball, Secretary-General | LAWASIA (AUSTRALIA)
Professor Yasushi Higashizawa, Co-Chair, Human Rights Section | LAWASIA (JAPAN)
- Mr Bolorsaikhan Badamsambuu, Advocate (MONGOLIA)
- Mr Simon Davis, President | Law Society of England and Wales (UNITED KINGDOM)
- Dr Lu Haina, Associate Professor | Renmin University of China Law School / Executive Director | Human Rights Center of Renmin University of China (CHINA)
- Ms Sara Hossain, Advocate | Supreme Court of Bangladesh, BLAST (BANGLADESH)
- Ms Kelly Kim, General Counsel | Open Net Korea (SOUTH KOREA)
- Mr M Akram Sheikh, Senior Advocate | Akram Sheikh Law Associates (PAKISTAN)
- Dr Jaspal Kaur Sadhu Singh, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law & Government | HELP University (MALAYSIA)
Korea discovered its first COVID-19 case on January 20th. The Korean Centres for Disease Control and Prevention immediately organized a meeting with bio-medicine companies to ask them to develop test kits. The test kits became available in three weeks. Then from February 20th, the number of cases began to explode in and around the City of Daegu to nearly 9,000 cases in less than a month, making Korea one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The size and speed of the outbreak seemed to be uncontrollable. The government, however, continued to 1) rigorously trace the prospective cases, 2) test for free, and 3) treat for free, everyone regardless of nationality. The government has also implemented robust measures to coordinate closely with all cities in the curbing of the spread of the virus, including the installation of the famous drive-through and walk-through testing centers.
One of the principles for the Korean government to respond to COVID-19 is full transparency. So, the Korean government disclosed not only travel routes of infected persons but also information on spreading patterns of the disease and response to it from the beginning of the disease. Our Foreign Minister Kang, Kyung-wha mentioned that the basic principles are openness, transparency and fully keeping the public informed. Korea has a very good health care system to begin with and the system is highly wired. Fully utilizing that, our government has dealt with the outbreak from the very beginning with full transparency and that’s how the government gained public trust and support.
However, such full transparency principle had side effects, especially regarding the disclosure of the travel routes of infected persons. As each local government has already disclosed when and whereabouts of infected persons with other personal information such as gender and age, individuals are being harmed. It caused groundless accusations, speculations, ridicule, and hate speech against the patients. People even say that they are more scared of being stigmatized by the disclosure than getting infected.
For example, a typical emergency alert says, “A 43-year-old man, resident of Nowon district, tested positive for coronavirus,” “He was at his work in Mapo district attending a sexual harassment class. He contracted the virus from the instructor of the class.” A series of alerts then follow such as where the men had been, including a bar in the area until 11:03 at night. These alerts arrive all day, every day, telling you where an infected person has been and when. You can also look up the information on the Ministry of Health and Welfare website or local governments’ websites. This disclosure measure is carried out according to the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act and the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA).
On March 9, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) said that “it is hard to deny the need to disclose a certain amount of information including location and time of the visit by the infected person to prevent the spread of infectious disease, but disclosing more personal data than necessary are resulting in human rights violations.”
Accordingly, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the disclosure guidelines on March 14. According to the guidelines, the location and means of travel should be disclosed only when there is a contact of non-patient with a patient, and personal data such as the address or company name, shouldn’t be disclosed. However, the guidelines still allow the disclosure of travel routes of patients. And other personal data of patients, such as gender, last name, age, occupation, nationality, and religion, are still being disclosed.
Although It’s necessary to disclose some information for the citizens’ right to know’s sake, we need to be careful not to violate the human rights of patients. For example, information about whether the patient entered Korea after visiting a specific country would be more important than the patient’s nationality. Likewise, more relevant is whether a person had a meal together with a patient is more important than whether the person is the patient’s spouse, daughter, son-in-law, or sister-in-law. Therefore, Korean civil society is requesting the government and the press to minimize the disclosure of unnecessary personal information that could be used to identify and stigmatize individuals.