Seoul city center remains empty on New Year’s Day due to coronavirus restrictions. Photo: Jong-Hyun Kim/Anadolu Agency/AFP

SEOUL – The Covid-19 outlook at the start of the new year for South Korea was grim Monday as the country recorded 1,020 new cases, with clusters in a logistics center, care homes and a prison that is home to two disgraced ex-presidents.

Also as of Monday, the country had found 10 cases of the highly transmissible new virus first identified in the United Kingdom.

Due to fewer than usual tests over the holiday, Korea recorded 657 cases on Sunday and 824 on Saturday, but there are fears that the number will jump further from Tuesday as testing resumes in full.

The three-day New Year’s holiday was necessarily subdued.

On Friday night, the traditional ringing of a medieval bell that hangs in downtown Seoul pavilion was live-streamed. The thousands who normally gather at the site for the New Year countdown were banned.

And on Saturday evening, Asia Times found many restaurants and bars in downtown Seoul closed. Those that were open were largely empty. Skiing and holiday resorts remain closed nationwide.

On the brink of ‘Level 3’

As the country anxiously eyed new cases, which had been fluctuating around the 1,000 mark daily for a week with an average of 941 infections, health officials who met on Saturday confirmed that the Seoul area, home to half the national population, would remain under current Level 2.5 social distancing guidelines through January 17.

Authorities have resisted imposing the most stringent guidelines in its five-tier system, Level 3, citing the potentially disastrous impact on millions of small businesses.

Last week, Level 2.5 guidelines were incrementally upgraded to what are being informally called Level 2.75 after the Seoul area banned meetings of more than four people. That condition has now been extended nationwide.

But even Level 3, were it instituted, still falls short of a total lockdown. As of last week, Asia Times learned that the exact conditions constituting Level 3 were still under discussion.

Having successfully contained the first two waves of the virus, South Korea had planned a late vaccination program. The third wave, which is proving far more difficult to deal with, has raised questions over that strategy and forced officials to accelerate vaccine buys.

Few customers for the stores in Seoul on New Year’s Day. South Korea’s third Covid wave is proving far more difficult to deal with. Photo: Jong-Hyun Kim/Anadolu Agency/AFP

President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun have both said inoculations could begin as early as February, though it is far from clear that vaccines will arrive in South Korea in any significant number before March.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine will be first shipped in February and March, followed by Johnson & Johnson’s and Moderna’s in the second quarter, and Pfizer’s in the third quarter, Yonhap reported, citing health officials.

The country is fast-tracking approval for the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine, and is expected to approve it within 40 days. It is the cheapest of the vaccines produced by Western pharmaceutical firms, and can be stored at normal fridge temperatures, easing its deployment. It is being produced under license in South Korea by SK Bioscience.

Meanwhile, clusters continue to pop up nationwide – notably in a logistics center, nursing homes and at Dongbu Detention Center, a Seoul-area prison.

Ex-presidents imperiled

While the prison is obviously easy to seal off from the wider population, as of Sunday, according to TV news reports, 1,084 infections had been traced to the facility. Of these, 1,041 were inmates, 22 were staff, and 21 were family members and acquaintances.

The center is notable for two of its inmates: former president Park Geun-hye, who is serving a 33-year compound sentence on corruption and abuse of power charges; and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who is serving a 17-year term for corruption.

Both are understood to be in poor health, though neither has tested positive for Covid-19.

On New Year’s Day, ex-prime minister and head of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea Lee Nak-yon raised the issue of a presidential pardon for the duo to boost national unity as the country battles the virus.

Two previous ex-presidents and former generals, Chun Do-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, had their life sentences overturned via presidential pardon in 1997 – also on grounds of restoring national unity.

However, Lee’s suggestion triggered a backlash within his party, with some accusing the party head, a presidential hopeful in 2022, of attempting to curry favor.

This dispatch includes AFP reporting