Religious cults, gig worker rights and lack of privacy

Discussing COVID-19 in South Korea with Yewon Kang

16 October 2020

This is a conversation between Anrike Visser, founder of Global Ground Media and freelance journalist Yewon Kang in South Korea recorded on 13 October 2020. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to our viewers. My name is Anrike Visser. I am the founder of Global Ground Media, and in this series, we look at the underreported issues of COVID-19 across Asia. The first episode was published last month and we interviewed Mariya Salim in India. Today we have Yewon Kang in South Korea with us. Welcome Yewon!

Hello, nice to meet you!

Thanks for being here. Yewon, let me introduce you quickly before we dive into our conversation. Yewon is an amazing freelance journalist based in Seoul. For Global Ground Media, she investigated misinformation and hate speech regarding immigrants in the country. I will link to the articles in the show notes on our website. Yewon, before we dive into the social issues around the pandemic, can you give a brief update of the current situation in regard to COVID-19?

Just last Sunday the government loosened up the social distancing guidelines to the minimal level, guideline level 1, down from level 2. Level 3 is a lockdown so it’s down to the minimum since March. Right now everything is almost as normal as it could be during COVID-19. Everybody is doing the basics like wearing masks and washing hands and social distancing in public areas but all the public spaces like schools and restaurants are all open. It has been contained fairly well in Korea I would say.

That is really good news. Congrats on that. First of all, I know it has been difficult in South Korea but it’s nice that it’s at least contained for the moment. Before we started the episode we talked a little bit about some of the latest clusters. Can you say what were some of the previous clusters that spread the virus in Korea?

The first big outbreak in Korea was in March. It started in Shincheonji Church of Jesus which is considered a cult group in Korea. There were over 5000 people tested positive in Daegu in Southern Korea. So, there was a big outbreak at that time, people died and many got infected. So there was a lot of tension and nervousness around the whole Daegu area and almost near lockdown in that area. The government tried hard with contact tracing and public safety and health measures that it went from level 2.5 to level 2.

In August there was another outbreak again by a church. This time Sarang Jeil Church, a protestant church in Korea. The pastor led a big demonstration against the government and the COVID measures in the Sarang Jeil area. There was again a big outbreak, so we had to go back to level 2.5. That was in Seoul and it spread almost nationwide. Then again the government made it strict but luckily most Korean citizens follow the measures. It got down to level 1. Everyone is feeling more relieved, but still, the pastor Jun Kwang-hoon was demonstrating against the government for privacy violations and clamping down on free speech. So there are still some minor groups who are not happy with the government and its regulations.

Got it. We’ll dive deeper into privacy issues later on, but I want to stay with the freedom of expression that you mentioned. Are religious gatherings allowed right now?

Yes, you can go to church right now, but a month ago they recommended not going to offline sermons. That was the main reason religious groups were not happy. This church per se is considered one of the more conservative Christian groups who are even backed by the right-wing political groups. Jun Kwang-hoon tends to talk about conspiracy theories and non-factual rumours such as that [COVID-19] was a terrorist attack from China and that Moon Jae-in, the Korean president, assisted this terrorist attack.

The group is backed by ultra-right-wing political groups. The majority of people are not taking it that seriously but at the same time, a lot of elderly, conservative Christian groups of Koreans are following [them] and taking this disinformation. You see this kind of clash. In the name of freedom of speech, they are spreading anti-government and free government or free-market messages. These are common right-wing chants or slogans that they use in the demonstration.

We see a lot of those similar messages around the world. A lot of protests against government messages and any government involvement even if it’s for public safety or health in this regard. It’s ironic that these demonstrations against the government, and maybe based on misinformation, saying [the virus] was actively spread by the government or China. These demonstrations actually became clusters spreading the virus. Is that correct?

Yes, Jun Kwang-hoon himself has been tested positive but he still held these demonstrations so he’s currently in prison awaiting trial because he violated government regulations. At that demonstration, over 4000 participants joined and this was the main cause of the second outbreak in the country.

What are the current levels when we talk about the infection?

Within the last months, there were strict social distancing guidelines, so the level has gone down. These days there are less than 100 daily infections which the Korean cities are saying it’s fairly manageable so that the minimum guidelines at level 1 are sufficient.

Let’s move on to some of the social issues that surround COVID-19. [Connection restored.] What are some of the hardest-hit groups when it comes to COVID-19 in Korea?

One of the dark sides that COVID-19 revealed was the labour gig workers in society who don’t really have a safety net and work daily jobs. They don’t have any insurance or benefits from the companies similar to Uber or Amazon workers in the US. In Korea, there is Coupang which is similar to Amazon for e-commerce like online shopping and fresh groceries shopping.

Especially in the COVID-19 time, everybody is ordering everything online so there was a big surge in demand for online deliveries leading to a rise of gig workers. But they were also at the forefront of risking their lives for their daily survival almost. For instance, back in [May] when COVID-19 was still fairly risky, there was a small cluster in Bucheon on the outskirts of Seoul at a Coupang delivery warehouse.

These gig workers were working overnight shifts for fresh grocery deliveries that arrive at your doorstep at 6 am. In this cold storage, they have to wear gear like boots and heavy jackets which as it turned out they were sharing. It was risky for COVID-19 to spread so there were a few clusters there.

The gig workers were not technically employees of Coupang. They couldn’t get any insurance or any kind of national health if they couldn’t work anymore or had to be quarantined. There was quite a bit of these kinds of cases, not just at Coupang but so many other companies with gig workers who have vulnerable positions in society.

So they are almost double hit by the virus. Because they are gig workers they don’t have social protection or insurance from the company or on their own. And because they were deemed essential workers they had to keep workers but lacked protective gear or were even sharing gear, so they were double hit in this regard.

And social distancing was almost impossible in this packed or crowded working space. They barely get time to rest and at the cafeterias. There was a lot of investigative journalism done in Korea about this and it was almost impossible to have social distancing or any kind of safety measures there.

I don’t know if you know this Yewon, but did the companies or other companies announce any improvements?

Coupang released information in a press release saying that some of the accusations are not true. They deny that some of the safety measures were not provided like masks and gloves. They also improved other online delivery sites. They made fairly good improvements in providing this gear. Still, some similar news stories are coming out.

We haven’t seen the end of it yet then. I want to continue with some of the privacy concerns you mentioned before. Can you explain briefly what the concerns are about?

Often Korea has been reported globally as successfully containing the virus. This is true, but on the other side of these strict government regulations, contact tracing and social distancing measures there has been a rise in concern about privacy.

A concern against the strict measures was on monitoring and tracing the people quarantined or infected. Once you were in contact with someone infected or crossing paths, the government can immediately track you via GPS via cell phones or even credit card [purchasing] history or CCTV cameras on the street. They will track your history or travel log basically. At the beginning, they would even release and share this information publicly, but now after the privacy concerns are vocalized they have reduced this to a minimum level.

There is still something called an infection map. If either you were infected or if you were in contact with someone, two weeks of your travel log including mode of transportation and times of day, all this history will be shared on this map. The point was to share the hotspots so you know if you’re safe or avoid these hotspots. People whose information was shared are very concerned and feeling very violated.

For example, one small cluster happened at a gay club in Itaewon [neighbourhood]. People who have been to these clubs are usually still closeted in Korea because it’s still very stigmatized. Some personal information still leaked so everybody can access this information. People were unintentionally outed and received hate messages. There were billboards in public space protesting against people who go to gay clubs. It’s very concerning.

It’s a fine balance but still overall citizens and the government of Korea prioritise safety and containing the virus rather than also protecting the privacy of citizens and vulnerable groups.

Can you explain how the identity of people was found out? Because the government did not release the names of people right?

The government doesn’t release the name or exact address but still very personally identifiable information released like your occupation, where you got infected, and places you’ve been to, or nationality. So it was pretty problematic.

I can imagine that if you release the travel history of a person for one or two weeks you can see where they go to work on weekdays and return home at the end of the day. Then it’s fairly easy to say who the person is. There are not a lot of people who have the same travel history. And then you can link it with their travel history and see exactly where they went. So basically, you’re outing people for example. Are people in Korea concerned about their privacy a lot?

Some of the activists. People have voiced more concern but in general, people support the ideas of the infection map and sharing all this information publicly. They are almost thinking: “I can sacrifice some of my privacy or individual rights for the public safety and health of the overall public. Privacy often comes second than the overall health and safety.

I can image there are other ways of releasing the same kind of information without being able to link it to a person. For example, these are the locations that people [who got infected] visited, but not releasing the travel history per person. I don’t know if that is something that is discussed in society, but there are alternatives.

At the beginning, in March, they released information even of people who didn’t get infected but simply crossed paths [with an infected person] before being diagnosed or they might not be diagnosed. Just because they went to the same restaurant days after another person who was infected was there. Even these people’s information would still be released, but for health concerns that is not necessary according to health experts.

There are still definitely ways to minimise sharing information for the privacy concern, but these things are done differently across cities or districts. For instance, Seoul city upgraded a lot in terms of what to release or not release whereas some other districts of other cities are still releasing a lot of personal information.

Talking about crossing people on the street, how do you try to stay safe during the pandemic?

Everybody is a little more relaxed than before. There is definitely less tension, but still, overall people wear masks including myself. The moment you go outside you’re supposed to wear a mask and always carrying hand sanitiser and staying away from crowded spaces. Just following the basic guidelines. People are complying well with these rules overall in Korea.

I remember also you said that people can get a fine if they don’t wear a mask outside.

Technically yes. And even if you don’t get a fine people can stare at you with mean eyes if you’re not wearing a mask or hung halfway down.

So pear pressure and governmental fines make for a safe environment in this instance. I want to thank you for your time Yewon. Unfortunately, we’re already over the time that we have for today. It was a very interesting chat and I hope to chat again soon.

Thank you. You too!

And for our viewers, if you have any questions about this episode or Korea in general, put them in the comments or contact us through our website. I hope you all stay safe and see all of you again in our next episode. Thank you so much for joining us today.


The views expressed in this interview are solely those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of Global Ground Media.

This series was developed with the support of Free Press Unlimited. 

Copyright © 2020, rights reserved as set forth in the copyright notice.

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