Office workers and city government employees receive a covid-19 test at a temporary testing center outside city hall in Seoul on December 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ed Jones

SEOUL – An intervention by the central government looks set to restore calm among the agitated foreign community in South Korea’s capital – and should remove some tarnish the country’s overseas reputation recently accrued.

On Thursday, a surprise administrative order from City Hall ordered all foreign workers in the capital to undertake Covid-19 tests by the end of the month. The communique sparked outrage in the coffee shops and social media chatrooms frequented by the expatriate community.

On Friday, after media reports, a social media storm and interventions by foreign embassies and chambers of commerce, national authorities intervened.

A government official told Asia Times the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency – the national body, headed by the prime minster that is responsible for national health and which has taken the lead in Korea’s globally admired Covid-19 response –  had “requested” that the city adjust or revoke the measure.  

Minutes after that discussion, Seoul City announced online that its order for all foreigners in the city to take Covid-19 tests had been changed to a recommendation.

What happened?

The brief brouhaha had its roots in measures taken by authorities in Seoul’s surrounding province, Gyeonggi.

There, the light industrial and agricultural sectors employ tens of thousands of migrant laborers from developing countries. These workers often toil in close proximity, and live in packed dormitories.

Cluster infections have been reported in these communities, leading to local authorities ordering compulsory tests.

Medical staff take a swab from a woman at a temporary testing station outside Seoul station. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP

On Thursday, Seoul appeared to follow suit when it released an administrative order in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Tagalog and Thai.

“From January to March 2021, the Covid-19 confirmation rate of the foreign workers in Seoul stands at 6.3%, which is a rapid increase from 2.2% from November to December in 2020,” the order said.

“Also, recently more than 100 people have been confirmed in the metropolitan areas, including Donducheon and Namyangju.”

In fact, the latter locations are in Gyeonggi, rather than the capital, with the former being 38km from downtown Seoul, and the latter, 22km.

“There is a risk that the infection might be spreading to Seoul because they are located within the same living zone.,” the administrative order said. “The group infection tends to be developing and spreading when foreign workers get together within their communities and then go back to their different workplaces.”

The order applied to all 60,055 foreign employees working in Seoul, a city official said in response to Asia Times’ questions on Thursday.

Seoul is home to a universe of foreign communities: diplomats, white-collar expatriates working for multinationals, entrepreneurs running small companies, academics in tertiary institutes, English teachers and blue-collar laborers. These communities overlap in various ways, but have different income levels, residences and lifestyles.

Allegations of discrimination and idiocy tore across social media.

Who was or was not a “foreign worker?” Why were only foreign workers, not the Korean staff who work with them, targeted? What about their family members?

Some called racism, some called stupidity, and a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party called the situation “a disgrace.” 

Fast response

The government official told this reporter that foreign media criticisms had been passed up to the presidential office. Embassies made inquiries to “chase down” both the definition of “foreign worker” and the rationale for the order. And influential foreign organizations called meetings with friendly officials.

 “We had a meeting with a Korean government ombudsman at 4:00PM yesterday and he gave us a heads up that this would be corrected,” said James Kim,  chairman and CEO of the influential American Chamber of Commerce in Korea told Asia Times.

The news of the U-turn was welcomed.

“The government was willing to listen and had the courage to take action,” said Kim. “We are very, very thankful.”

As for why the situation had transpired, Kim offered: “Korea’s culture is all about palli palli (“hurry, hurry”) and I think when they first did it in the spirt of eradicating Covid-19, they acted very fast and it had unintended consequences.”

Last year, there had been related concerns when the country ordered all foreign residents traveling abroad to take Covid-19 tests if they wished to re-enter Korea. As the measure did not apply to locals, many found it racist.

A nursing home worker is vaccinated at a health care center in Seoul. Foreigners are now requested to be tested. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP

However, Korean government officials candidly told Asia Times that they wanted to extend the measure – which aimed to discourage overseas travel – to locals, too, but were hampered by constitutional law.

The swift corrective action suggests that the country’s high reputation for dealing effectively with the pandemic will not be tarnished by allegations of discrimination.

White privilege vs migrant labor

Still, it has highlighted a divide in the country’s foreign communities.

Some expatriates who critiqued the measure expressed sympathy for the migrant laborers from developing countries who do not benefit from the kind of high-profile bully pulpit enjoyed by citizens from developed nations.

Even so, Michael Breen, a Seoul-based investor and author who underwent a test on Thursday to “beat the rush,” was not convinced that racism had been in play.

“I think, ironically, there might have been a discussion somewhere  about, ‘We have got to get these people living in crowded dorms tested,’ and someone said, ‘That would be racist,’ so  maybe they said, ‘Well, let’s test all foreigners.’”

But Breen conceded that the embassies and chambers of commerce with the muscle and the willingness to raise their voices with the government would likely have been those from Europe and North America.

Meanwhile, it is far from clear who in Seoul City gave the original order.

The government official suggested that with Seoul’s mayor having committed suicide last year, the vacant leadership position in City Hall had led to the situation. A by-election takes place next month.

The protocols set in place for the mandatory tests – test stations established in various parts of the city – will still be offered to foreign workers in Seoul through the end of this month.

And Breen reported that all procedures there had been smooth.

“I had five minutes in a taxi to the test center, a wait of about 20 minutes behind about 10 people in the queue,  the test, then straight back to the office   very efficient,” he said. “The result came through the next morning by text message.”

The test was free, he added.