Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

South Korea Postpones School Reopening As The Number Of New Coronavirus Cases Soars


The world is watching the countries that have seen COVID-19 cases peak and decline. As they ease social distancing and get back to work, new outbreaks are complicating their restarts. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul on the situation in South Korea.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: We're standing outside a nightclub in Seoul's Itaewon neighborhood, a hilly district of bars and restaurants that is generally pretty bustling on a weekend evening. There is a red-lettered official notice on the door banning any assembly until further notice. The club is one of five establishments that health authorities say a 29-year-old man visited on the night of May 1 before testing positive for the virus. Over 100 cases have been tied to this cluster, which has spread to other cities and provinces. South Korea had just seen several days without any locally transmitted cases before the new cluster was found. Frustrated residents, like local restaurant worker Park Gye-soon, say business had just begun to pick up.

PARK GYE-SOON: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: We should all be taking precautions to get over this coronavirus fast, she says. And I just can't understand why some people wouldn't cooperate.

Health authorities have cranked up their sophisticated contact tracing system to track down more than 5,500 recent club-goers, and they're using cellphone data to identify more than 10,000 recent visitors to the Itaewon neighborhood and are advising them via text message to get tested for the virus. Jeong Sujin, who works in Itaewon, got the message and called a help hotline.

JEONG SUJIN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: I said, I work in the neighborhood but I stay inside a building and take precautions, she says. I didn't cross paths with the patients, so should I still get tested? They said it's recommended but not mandatory.

South Korea just adopted looser social distancing guidelines this month that call for less travel, less crowded workspaces and staying home from work in the event of a fever or respiratory symptoms. On Monday the new cluster prompted authorities to put off the reopening of schools for another week. In a speech on Sunday, President Moon Jae-in called for residents to neither relax their vigilance nor give in to fear.


PRESIDENT MOON JAE-IN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: We should brace for the pandemic's second wave, which many experts are predicting, he said. However, we can't afford to keep waiting until then to return to normal daily lives. Authorities insist that they've already factored new outbreaks into their plans. Moon said authorities can handle them without straining the country's health system.


MOON: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: If we don't let our guard down, he said, our epidemic prevention and quarantine system can fully control and manage the spread of the virus. Despite the new cluster, Moon insisted that South Korea's COVID-19 response has set a new global standard.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDISH GAMBINO SONG, "REDBONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 12, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous Web introduction to this report incorrectly said that South Korea planned to reopen schools on Tuesday. It had planned to reopen them on Wednesday, May 13.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.