Elementary school students in Seoul wear masks as a precaution against the MERS virus. Source: Time Online
Elementary school students in Seoul wear masks as a precaution against the MERS virus. Source: Time Online

BY SAM SUSSMAN

In the early weeks of June, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and conflict in the South China Sea were at the forefront of East Asian News discussions. While seemingly unrelated, when viewed together, these two topics can answer a quirky question for news junkies and global health nuts alike: Why did South Korea close it schools, and then wait to reopen them against the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO)?

The answer is: an outbreak among students would have created a debacle for the South Korean government at a time when it really could not afford one because of the high tensions with China over the South China Sea issue.

As of June 4th, the WHO began urging the South Korean government to reopen schools that had been closed because of the outbreak of MERS [1]. At its peak, over 2600 schools were closed and remained closed until the June 15th [2],[3],[4]. This advice makes sense. The outbreak has been generally limited to hospitals and had only infected one teenager. It was not in schools or in the student population, so shuttering thousands of schools seemed odd. The topical answer to this is that South Korea will be hosting the upcoming Summer Universiade, a sports competition among universities representing over 170 countries. As host, South Korea wants to ensure that the event is not marred by the MERS outbreak and is enacting overly cautious policy.

Virologists screen a subway for traces of the MERS disease. Source: The Atlantic
Virologists screen a subway for traces of the MERS disease. Source: The Atlantic

But that explanation is weak. Obviously no country wants MERS, a disease with a reported 40% mortality rate, regardless of whatever games they will be hosting. South Korea was not enacting any other odd bans, so why was there so much emphasis on making sure no students catch MERS? The answer to this question is South Korea’s tenuous neutrality on the South China Sea issue.

Some background: the South China is bordered by China, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, among others. One third of all world shipping travels on the South China Sea, and it is lush with oil and natural gas. Who has control of which parts of the Sea, who has rights to drill, and who controls many of the tiny islands in the Sea are all hotly contested. South Korea has stayed neutral, while nearly every other party in the area have taken issue with China’s maneuvers, which many view as aggressive.

Back to MERS. At the time, Taiwan had issued the second highest alert on travel to South Korea, “asking travellers to avoid visits to the country and especially hospitals in Seoul” [5]. The only level above this one is a complete ban on all travel to South Korea. Furthermore, Taiwan had stated that it was still considering whether or not Taiwanese nationals will be allowed to participate in the Summer Universiade competition [6]. If MERS had broken out in a school system Taiwan, which was already on high alert, likely would have decided to ban its athletes. This ban could have triggered a chain of withdrawals and restrictions on travel to South Korea, resulting in a fiasco for South Korea’s international image.

While on its own this would be bad, this likely would have coincided with another fiasco initially slated for June 16th. South Korean President President Park Geun-hye was scheduled to come to the United States for a summit where the United States would push for Korea to get off the fence about China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

South Korea has stayed neutral on this issue because it walks an incredibly fine line between US and China. The United States has pushed back against China’s actions on the South China Sea. The U.S. has also been a historical ally of South Korea and still maintains a large military presence in South Korea; at the same time China is South Korea’s largest export destination (23%) (Followed by the United States at 11%) [7].

Students celebrate South Korea's Independence Day. Source: Zimbio
Students celebrate South Korea’s Independence Day. Source: Zimbio

Prior to the cancellation of the June 16th summit, one can likely imagine a scenario where South Korea summits with the United States and is pressured into issuing a weak protestation of China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. Simultaneously, a university where one of the South Korean athletes studies at becomes infected with MERS. As a result, Taiwan, already on the second highest level of alert, bans travel to South Korea. China, faced with Taiwan’s actions against South Korea and the insult of Korea’s minor statement, is compelled to follow suit and ban travel. Investors, unsure as to whether or not the Chinese authorities are actually upset or simply responding to the health threat, lose confidence in Korea’s relationship with its largest exporter destination. As a result, Korean stocks take a tumble. Obviously this is an outcome South Korea desperately wants to avoid. Furthermore, actually inflicting harm on South Korea would also be bad for China, as, right now, Korea’s neutrality gives China more leeway. If South Korean companies were to be significantly hurt by a Chinese travel ban, South Korea might be emboldened to become more vocal about the South China Sea, and around and around we go.

This scenario seems eminently plausible, and the thing the Korean government is most in control of is limiting the outbreak. This scenario also explains why China seemed to be cautious about issuing travel warnings against South Korea as Taiwan and Hong Kong have — China is walking on eggshells as to not potentially push South Korea at such a tenuous time [8]. There you have it: the reason why South Korea is keeping its schools closed is because it does not want to potentially hurt its relationship with China, its largest exporter.

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[1] Bell, Matthew. “The MERS Virus Is Scary, but South Korea Is Probably Overreacting.” Public Radio International. N.p., 4 June 2015. Web. 8 July 2015. <http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-06-04/mers-virus-scary-south-korea-probably-overreacting&gt;.

[2] Park, Ju-Min, and Choonsik Yu. “South Korea Cuts Rates as MERS Clouds Outlook; 10th Patient Dies.” Rueters UK. N.p., 11 June 2015. Web. 8 July 2015. <http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/06/11/uk-health-mers-southkorea-idUKKBN0OP2MV20150611&gt;.

[3] Fox, Maggie. “MERS Is No Reason to Close Schools, WHO Tells S. Korea.” NBC News. N.p., 11 June 2015. Web. 08 July 2015. <http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/mers-mystery/mers-no-reason-close-schools-who-tells-s-korea-n372861&gt;.

[4] Oh, Seung Yun. “Schools Reopen as South Korea Seeks Normality amid MERS Outbreak.” Reuters. N.p., 15 June 2015. Web. 8 July 2015. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/15/us-health-mers-southkorea-idUSKBN0OU14P20150615&gt;.

[5] Chung, Lawrence. “Taiwan to Work with Hong Kong and Mainland China on Mers.” South China Morning Post. N.p., 9 June 2015. Web. 8 July 2015. <http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1819289/taiwan-work-with-hongkong-mers&gt;.

[6] Chung, Lawrence. “Taiwan to Work with Hong Kong and Mainland China on Mers.” South China Morning Post. N.p., 9 June 2015. Web. 8 July 2015. <http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1819289/taiwan-work-with-hongkong-mers&gt;.

[7] R Hausmann, CA Hidalgo, S Bustos, M Coscia, S Chung, J Jimenez, A Simoes, M Yildirim. “South Korea.” The Atlas of Economic Complexity. Puritan Press. Cambridge MA. (2011). Web. 8 July 2015. <https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/kor/.&gt;

[8] Tsang, Emily, Danny Lee, and Chris Lau. “Don’t Panic over Mers, Hongkongers Urged as All Suspected Cases Test Negative for Virus.” South China Morning Post. N.p., 11 June 2015. Web. 8 July 2015. <http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/1820162/dont-panic-about-mers-hong-kong-official-urges&gt;.

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