Following its success in containing the early waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea hoped to be recognized as a global health leader. But a recent survey conducted by KEI and YouGov suggests that fewer Americans see South Korea as an ideal partner in global health challenges than they did in 2020 (52% in 2020 vs. 43 in 2021). This seems to also correspond with fewer Americans believing that South Korea has handled COVID-19 well in 2021 than in 2020 (42% vs. 54%).
Is this a fair assessment? Korean health authorities and workers are struggling to keep the caseload under control as the Delta variant sweeps the country. Simultaneously, the country is en route to achieving 80% vaccination rate for all adults (70% for the whole population) by the end of October. By comparison, the United States is trailing with approximately 56% of the total population fully vaccinated in early October.
However, the U.S. public’s attitudes towards the Korean response to COVID-19 in 2021 probably require two additional caveats. First, the American public’s worldview does not change drastically year-to-year. Case in point: the survey was conducted ahead of the news that Pyongyang had restarted plutonium enrichment; nonetheless, the American public remains deeply focused on proliferation concerns despite nearly three years of silence since the “fire and fury” months of 2017. Similarly, public perception of Korea’s newly gained public health response capabilities may be lagging.
Second, there is a partisan dimension to the American public’s response. The survey shows that Democratic voters in the United States are far more likely to want to see cooperation on global health than their Republican peers (58% vs. 31%). This may reflect skepticism among Republican voters of the dangers associated with COVID-19 and the politicization of public health measures by leading figures within the party. These factors suggest that South Korea’s ability to project soft power via its public policy know-how may be curbed in the United States by domestic politics.
This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.
Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Janet Hong and Yubin Huh. Picture from KEI’s annual survey.