South Korea's response to the coronavirus outbreak appears to have been remarkably successful. Unlike most of the Western world, it has managed to stop the spread of the virus, without shutting down its economy.
Now, it has become the first country to successfully conduct a general election during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was not entirely business-as-usual for the voters, of course.
The National Election Commission (NEC) established strict health protocols, requiring voters to wear face masks and disposable gloves, maintain social distancing, and pass a temperature check before casting ballots. Those failing the temperature check were required to use special voting stations that were disinfected after each use.
Even with these extraordinary measures, more than 17 million South Koreans flocked to the polls on Wednesday. Overall turnout was over 65 percent, the highest in 28 years.
Of course, South Korea has a proud history of resiliency in the face of adversity. As The Economist recently pointed out:
“Historically, the country has rebounded quickly from economic shocks. After the Asian financial meltdown of 1997, it took just two years for GDP to return to its pre-crisis peak. The country also emerged more quickly than others from the global financial crisis of 2008, because its banks were in better shape than a decade before and because the government responded aggressively, with a mix of fiscal and monetary stimulus. It is responding to the covid-19 outbreak equally vigorously.”
This resiliency is just one reason why South Korea has been such a valued partner for the United States. Once a recipient of American development assistance, South Korea has become one of the richest countries in the world. And, for generations, the U.S.-South Korea Alliance has been the linchpin of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.
The key to this partnership has been shared values (i.e., a commitment to democracy and free markets), people-to-people ties and business cooperation among global companies based in both countries.
Time and time again, South Korea has proven to be a reliable and steadfast ally for America in dealing with common challenges. As my colleague Bruce Klingner recently pointed out, that cooperation is based on shared values and goals, not “transactional relationships.”
Over the years, bilateral trade and investment activities have deepened and broadened the economic relationship. This was institutionalized in March 2012, with the KORUS Free Trade Agreement. The recent $60 billion bilateral currency swap agreement to ease a possible liquidity crunch caused by the pandemic demonstrates the joint U.S./Korean commitment to keeping our economies resilient.
Unquestionably, the current pandemic-induced economic downturn is deeper, wider and more complex than past economic challenges. In such circumstances, the resilience of countries like South Korea is especially valuable. “The Land of Morning Calm” has been ahead of the curve in bringing the coronavirus outbreak under control and is now taking steps to control the disease well into the future through its technology and hyper-connected society.
Going forward, the United States and South Korea will fight this disease—and more—side by side, just as they have met common foes in the past. South Korea’s admirable performance to date shows exactly why it’s important for the United States to stay in the business of preserving and advancing freedom, civil society and other democratic values around the world.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times