South Korean Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum speaks to foreign reporters in Seoul. Photo: Asia Times / Andrew Salmon

SEOUL – South Korean Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, who heads his government’s pandemic response, has suggested his Omicron-wracked nation will start its Covid-19 exit after mid-March.

For many South Koreans – who were the first population in the world after China to suffer a mass outbreak – the end cannot come soon enough.

One man who might appreciate the feel-good boost of a swift exit is ruling party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung. But Kim made clear that his government’s prudent response to the crisis will not be swayed by political considerations – including the March 9 presidential election.

Asked by foreign reporters in Seoul on Tuesday what pre-conditions must be met before South Korea can exit Covid, Kim said: “The first pre-condition has to be hospital capacity – the medical capacity to take care of the critically ill.”

While Kim would not be drawn on specifics – “I cannot say an exact number for now” – he indicated this condition was being met.

“We judge that we have sufficient capacity to take care of the critically ill,” he said. “But health authorities are beleaguered by the increasing cases.”

Though the country is inundated with a flood of Omicron cases, the medical dikes are holding. On Tuesday, South Korea registered 99,573 new infections, but only 480 were hospitalized with severe symptoms.

The caseloads for the last two days have been below the record highs hit last week, when daily infections were trending north of 100,000. It is too early at this stage, however, to know whether this is simply a blip or an actual downward trend.

Visitors enter a music festival after taking a rapid Covid-19 self-test at Olympic park in Seoul on June 26, 2021. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

Infection spike on the way

With South Koreans being heavily vaccinated, and with Seoul having established a home-treatment system just prior to the Omicron wave hitting, the health system has the capacity to handle the worst, Kim said.

Forecasts widely reported in local media anticipate a spike of about 170,000 daily infections in mid-March. South Korea, Kim said, is ready. “Though Omicron is still spreading rapidly,” Kim said, the health system has to capacity to “take care of 200,000 cases per day.”

Kim admitted that planning for the next big step – a shift from pandemic to endemic conditions – is underway.

“Thinking of a Covid exit, we are monitoring the situation in other countries,” Kim said. “I have requested the [Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency] to prepare an exit scenario.”

South Korea now mandates a 10 pm curfew for businesses, mask-wearing in all public places and a seven-day quarantine period for incoming travelers. North America and Western Europe, which both suffered far higher death rates earlier in the pandemic, are starting to leave the crisis behind.  

Denmark, Norway and most recently England have dropped all Covid-19 restrictions. Even neighbor Japan, which has seen peak Omicron pass, recently announced increased numbers of visa issuances and has slashed its seven-day quarantine to three days.

But any such easing looks unlikely in South Korea in the near future.

“Regarding timing, it is difficult to tell,” Kim said. “Ahead of the presidential election, I would like to give a hopeful message, but experts mention that the peak of Omicron would be the middle of March, then case numbers will go down.”

President Moon Jae-in getting vaccinated. Photo: AFP

Prudence before politics

A mid-March exit would fall within the current government’s term. President Moon Jae-in’s five years in office expire at midnight on May 9.

It would be a fitting bookmark. Arguably Moon’s greatest achievement in the Blue House has been his adroit handling of the pandemic, which has been managed without a single lockdown and with one of the lowest death rates in the developed world.

Last year, the Korean economy entered the ranks of the Group of 10.  

However, that would be too late to assist ruling party presidential hopeful Lee, who is now battling through a neck-and-neck campaign ahead of the March 9 election.

South Korea won major global kudos for its high-tech, non-lockdown pandemic containment policies in 2020. And in April that year, Moon’s party swept the National Assembly elections.

The outlook turned less rosy in 2021 when South Korea lagged in vaccinations. However, the country sped up late in the year. Now, an impressive 85.6% of citizens are fully inoculated.

Given all this, Kim was upbeat on the way citizens have responded to the pandemic. “The driving forces have been a high vaccination rate, active public participation in social distancing and the great civic awareness of the people,” Kim said.

And yet, while South Korea has seen no chaotic anti-mask protests or even any significant anti-vaccination movement, pressure is certainly building.

Pandemic fatigue sets in

A number of demonstrations have taken place in central Seoul, with protesters demanding an end to ongoing social distancing restrictions.

And multiple statements by officials – Kim’s included – accept the need to balance the requirements of the economy with the prudence that pandemic containment requires.

This is particularly sensitive in the election period, as the lower layer of the economy is dominated by Mom ‘n Pop businesses – restaurants, bars, cram schools, taxi services – which rely heavily on after-hours operations.

Seoul’s city center was almost empty on New Year’s Day due to Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, January 1, 2021. Photo: Jong-Hyun Kim / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Anecdotal data also suggests that enforcement of curfews is increasingly lagging. Asia Times has noted the proliferation of “speakeasy” bars that continue to do business late, in defiance of curfews, in two separate Seoul nightlife zones.

These used to be restricted to basement establishments, which can be effectively light- and sound-proofed, and which only took cash payments. However, more recently, some locations are brazenly showing lights above ground and accepting credit card payments, which can be time-dated.

Yet despite Kim’s hopes of a shift to normalization in March, South Koreans have heard talk of a Covid exit before.

In late October, the government announced a plan that would have seen a phased, three-month return to normality, with all restrictions being lifted by the end of January.

However, once the Omicron variant started its global spread, that plan was shelved at its earliest implementation stage.