Plagues & Peoples in Korea
As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage populations worldwide — I write these words in November 2021 — the DPRK (North Korea) continues to insist that it has successfully maintained Covid Zero. As reports from Daily NK and other organisations with contacts inside North Korea will attest, this claim is almost certainly absurd. I have spent my own pandemic in Fortress Australia. New South Wales came close to Covid Zero until one case of the Delta Variant leaped from strict hotel quarantine into the community. Despite protracted lockdowns, Australia has failed to regain its first wave advantage. Now we learn to live with Covid, albeit with the benefit of widespread double vaccination, mask mandates, regular testing, and world class track and trace. North Korea has none of these advantages.
Seeking to understand the impact of Covid-19 on the DPRK, I explored the impact of an earlier pandemic on the Korean Peninsula. The Spanish Flu ravaged Japanese-occupied Korea from 1918–1921 and claimed at least 200,000 lives from a population of only 17 million. The pandemic transformed Korea, not only in those lives tragically lost or shortened, but through the social and political transformations that the plague unleashed. The research of Dr Lim Chaisung was particularly valuable in demonstrating the link between the March 1st Movement of 1919 and Korean rage at Japanese colonial mismanagement of the pandemic. Many of the doctors on the frontlines of the pandemic were also on the frontlines of the drive for Korean independence and would rise to prominence in both North and South Korea after 1945.
The Spanish Flu pandemic in Korea rarely — if ever — featured in the countless books I have read about Korea since I started my doctoral research in 2012. Returning to Sino-NK — home to a wonderful array of Sinologists and Korean Studies scholars — I am honoured to present a trilogy of pieces about pandemics in Korea. The first two instalments will trace the arrival and spread of Spanish Flu in Korea, whilst the final instalment will consider the Coronavirus pandemic, with particular attention to North Korea, asking what lessons we might learn from the great influenza pandemic of 1918–1921.