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.

Dr. Frank Schofield teach­ing at Sev­er­ance Hos­pi­tal, Seoul, cir­ca 1919. | Image: Yon­sei Med­ical Jour­nal vol. 60, no. 4 (April 2019)


“Plagues & Peo­ples in Korea, I: The Vis­i­ta­tion,” Sino-NK, 2 Novem­ber 2021


“Plagues & Peo­ples in Korea, II: Behold! A New World is Before Our Eyes,” Sino-NK, 13 Decem­ber 2021