Korea’s double whammy: a threat not just from the North but from within


Pyongyang vs. PyeongChang

“Daniel Olomae Ole Sapit, a member of Kenya’s semi-nomadic Maasai tribe, is now well aware that Pyeongchang is not in North Korea. Last fall, Mr. Sapit, a 42-year-old representative for indigenous cow herders in his native Kenya, was registered to attend a United Nations conference on biodiversity in Pyeongchang, a ski resort just south of the heavily fortified border that separates the authoritarian North from the capitalist South. Instead, Mr. Sapit ended up in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. After several anxious hours struggling to explain the mix-up to North Korean immigration officials, Mr. Sapit was escorted on a flight back to China—and on to South Korea. Winter sports fans should take note. In a bit more than two years, PyeongChang will host the 2018 Olympics, attracting tens of thousands of athletes, supporters and reporters from around the world.”

Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service (Korean Olympic Committee)

Far from being funny, this episode is rather sad when you put it into the perspective of the situation on the Korean Peninsula representing the last vestige of the Cold War and one of the few remaining divided countries in the world. Still, we have to stay on high alert in the face of threats and provocative acts from North Korea as previously seen in a series of deadly attacks on military and civilian targets, such as sinking of the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan just south of the maritime boundary and attack on Yeonpyeong Island with artillery in 2010, alongside successful long-range missile and nuclear tests[1].

There is absolutely no doubt that North Korea is the biggest challenge confronting South Korea in terms of countering chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats[2]; however, hidden dangers are lurking inside: an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, that has rapidly swept the entire country, clearly demonstrated that an imminent threat from the North is not the only concern in the run-up to a large-scale international event like the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Communicating Communicable Diseases: Poor Risk Communication

As explained briefly, a huge biological incident struck South Korea in the summer of 2015. As one may already know, it was not from the North but from within. As of July 28, the day the Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn announced the end of the virus in the country, 186 people were diagnosed with the virus in the Republic of Korea and 36 died. That has been “the largest outbreak outside Saudi Arabia”, where the disease was first discovered. The last patient of MERS died only on 26 November after 5 months of hospitalization raising the final number of the victims to 38

MERS-CoV_Particles_(8618697423)“South Korea’s MERS quarantine is in stark contrast to its effectiveness and success in preventing the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in 2003 when SARS infected 8,000 people and killed 774 around the world. Only four people were quarantined in hospitals in South Korea after contracting SARS while abroad. There was no further spread of the virus in South Korea.”

Now that the spread of MERS was not contained at the same pace as SARS, President Park had to postpone a summit meeting with President Obama amid mounting criticism against the government’s handling of the outbreak, pointing to poor leadership and co-ordination. The main cause behind this can be cited as poor risk communication both within and between the relevant government ministries, and even between government decision-makers, the public and front-line healthcare workers.

“It is all the clearer that risk communication is a key part of managing the overall risk from these events. And that bears squarely on the health and safety of the public. Risk management in a crisis has to include not just the threat itself but also how people perceive and respond to the threat. Risk communication is a vital tool; for managing that part of the overall risk.” South Korea learned it from a painful history in the wake of the Sewol ferry disaster which killed 300 people onboard, which prompted Park to create a new Ministry of Public Security and Safety. It took control of maritime traffic control responsibilities from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, and safety duties from the Ministry of Safety and Public Administration. The Ministry also took control of the functions of the disbanded Korea Coast Guard.

Nevertheless, little has been changed since then, and the lack of a control tower, which resulted in uncoordinated rescue operations in the ferry tragedy a year ago, has been reincarnated with a vengeance in the recent MERS incident.

First, the South Korean government has been criticized widely for inadequate information disclosure during the outbreak. For more than two weeks, the government refused to make public the names of hospitals that had treated MERS patients because it was concerned about public panic. “In a word, that sort of poor risk communication will make you feel mistrustful. And mistrust in the people who are supposed to keep you safe translates into anger and worry, which causes all sorts of serious health risks. The risk from how people perceive risk, is as real as the physical danger itself, perhaps more.”

Second, to properly deal with what to communicate, to whom, how and when, there should be a single, clear chain of command and supervision, under which orderly and systematic planning process can be seamlessly managed. However, since the MERS outbreak in Korea, the chief of the National Crisis Management Headquarters has been changed twice from Director of Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDCP) to Deputy Minister of Health, and yet again to Minister of Health. Meanwhile, the country has missed out on the golden opportunity to prevent wildfires from spreading further and to make matters even worse, there was a shortage of emergency responders and front-line epidemiologists for preventive measures. Even if there are few of them, they were not given full power to make decisions when a quick and comprehensive quarantine is in dire need.

Lessons Learned: How to prepare for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in the event of a possible CBRN incident

Building on the 2014 Asian Games, which was based on inter-regional and inter-agency capabilities for response to a CBRN incident, credibility, communication deficiencies, information sharing, risk management, and well-coordinated efforts between on-site and off-site as well as between decision-makers and first responders are a way forward for any future events.

Back in 2014, CBRN Defense Command, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Health and Regional Fire Departments were all involved, focusing on their own skill areas under the National Terror Countermeasure Headquarters.

Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces
Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces

However, as evidenced by the recent MERS outbreak, good communication and coordination between the organizations involved is not an easy task. In practice, the newly established Ministry of Public Safety and Security that took over the responsibilities of fire and rescue service, maritime safety and disaster management in emergency situations from other Ministries ended up having no full control over local authorities and community clinics working on the ground when it comes to quarantine of communicable diseases like MERS, which remains solidly in the hands of the existing Ministry of Safety and Public Administration, thereby only adding an extra layer to the already complicated structure of command and control.

Worse yet, nuclear disaster management was not merged with this new Ministry but still lies within the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission. In case of a nuclear incident, the law stipulates that the Commission’s radiation emergency bureau shall set up the “Central Radiation Crisis Management Headquarters” to tackle the crisis. But it is not powerful enough to be able to coordinate efforts amongst all relevant parties — local governments, fire departments, police agencies, Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Defense. The consequences of lack of coordination can be detrimental in light of the looming nuclear threat from North Korea.

A case in point is when the massive Fukushima nuclear accident hit Japan in 2011, “it took four days for the government and Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) to coordinate communications, and the disjointed and incomplete information released in those first few critical days created grave mistrust in both the company and the government.”

“With regard to the organizational elements of the operation, the Japanese government did not have the expert body such as the UK’s GDS (Government Decontamination Service).” And furthermore, rescue operations were kept under wraps out of fear that disclosure of the mission would provoke anxiety and speculation among the public. These are two major factors that hindered the efficiency of consequence management.

In this context, a unified command structure must set in motion dedicated to the smooth coordination and communications between on-site and off-site operations and mainly led by first-responders equipped with delegated powers. Since the incidents, such as the Fukushima nuclear disaster and MERS outbreak, are like a ticking time bomb, they should be given far greater discretion to act on their own in a timely manner utilizing their field experience and expertise to the fullest.

To further enhance their capabilities, regular training sessions can be held for first responders, including police, firefighters, local government officials, medical doctors and even military personnel, and in parallel, civil defense drills are equally as important so that the general public are also regularly updated on and informed of safety guidelines to wisely control scarce and fear in the face of any massive crisis related to CBRN.

The article was edited by Christina Mangiridou, Conference Manager, IB Consultancy

[1] For more details about these two incidents, see the link as follows: https://asiafoundation.org/resources/pdfs/201104SnyderandByun.pdf

[2] An overview of North Korea’s CBRN threats is provided here: http://www.nti.org/country-profiles/north-korea/

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You Jeong Kim was an Analyst at IB Consultancy. In 2006, after having earned a Masters Degree in Interpretation from the Ehwa Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation in Korea, she started her career at the US Embassy in Seoul interpreting for major speeches, seminars and international events attended by the US Ambassador, as well as a series of Korea-US FTA negotiations. From 2007 onwards, she is working for the Korean Parliament where she interprets for bilateral or multilateral summit talks between Korean Speakers and distinguished heads of state and delegates from all around the globe, such as King Abdullah II of Jordan, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. While on leave, she is currently enrolled in the Masters Programme in International Relations and Diplomacy at Leiden University.