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Opinion | Outed for the greater good?

How Korea’s contact tracing program saved lives while outing others

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More than half of Korea’s initial COVID cases traced back to a single patient. “Patient 31” was a member of Shincheonji, a religious cult that believed its founder was the pastor promised in the New Testament. Many Koreans were vaguely aware of the cult, mostly because of its in-your-face yet enigmatic way of recruiting members. Shincheonji followers usually showed up in pairs in bustling parts of the city and targeted unaccompanied pedestrians. The tactics they used to lure unassuming pedestrians to the cult varied from reciting Shincheonji doctrines disguised as a rehearsal for a school presentation to trying to pinpoint the prospective recruit’s insecurities during a conversation.  

The convention was to avoid engaging with these people even if you thought you could outsmart them. After a few exposés of Shincheonji street recruitment tactics that trended on social media, most Koreans spurned Shincheonji members, considered no more spiritual than lowly scammers. Even their victims didn’t get much sympathy — after all, some of the most devout Shincheonji followers were once naive pedestrians.  

As many outlets noted, it was no coincidence that a member of Shincheonji managed to poke a gaping hole in Korea’s relatively robust contact-tracing system. Early in the pandemic, when not much was known about the virus, patient cooperation with authorities was key to curbing the spread. But secrecy was at the heart of the Shincheonji doctrine. Members were not allowed to talk about the church to outsiders, not even to friends and family. There were accounts that for months, church leaders would not mention the word Shincheonji to the new recruits of the sect, probably out of concern that the stigma associated with the name would turn off new members. Instead, indoctrination happened more subtly and gradually. Patient 31 and other COVID-positive church-goers were evasive and opaque about their whereabouts, which came at a heavy cost to public health.  

When the government launched a manhunt based on the names of the 212,000 Shincheonji members the church handed over, the public consensus was that it was necessary. Korea also developed a more aggressive testing and tracing strategy to prevent another Shincheonji nightmare. Every time someone tested positive, a text alert was sent to everyone in the locality, informing them of all the places the COVID-positive person had visited since exposure. On reflection, there is something deeply unsettling about the raids and the protocols they led to. But amid the panic of an uncontrollable, deadly virus, none of this truly registered.

It was against the backdrop of this internationally-praised contact-tracing program that I decided to return to Korea, a decision I made after fruitlessly attempting to wait out the pandemic on a deserted campus. During the two weeks of quarantine in my parent’s house, I was GPS-tracked through my phone and assigned a local government worker who would call me every few days. I wasn’t complaining. I was astounded by how Korea and the U.S. had their first reported cases of COVID-19 on the same day, yet Korea had managed to do so much during the time so many of us in the U.S. were in denial. Getting tracked was an inconvenience, but small sacrifices like this (and masking) made it possible for everyone in the country to enjoy a fairly normal daily life without worrying about the threat of the virus.  

Indeed, the first few days out of quarantine, I savored every moment of freedom a relatively COVID-free society offered, on one occasion tearing up in a packed, fully masked subway.

On April 30, Korea hit zero domestic cases, and that weekend I went out with a friend who had also returned to Korea after a bleak month of lockdown in the US. We visited Itaewon, a neighborhood known for its nightlife, ethnically diverse crowd and “Homo Hill,” a small hill housing several gay clubs and bars — a rarity in Korea.  There were family restaurants just a few blocks away, but Homo Hill and the adjacent “Hooker Hill,” a technically illegal red light district, were beyond the reach of the mainstream crowd — no “decent” person in Korea would publicly admit to visiting these cultural gems.  

We started the night at a small Korean BBQ restaurant and then grabbed drinks at a bar with live DJs. The night prior, I had asked my friend if they would be interested in checking out Trunk, a gay club near the entrance of Homo Hill where some of my favorite drag queens performed. They advised against it, since clubbing was still riskier than other activities. I decided to be content with singing late 2000s K-pop in a karaoke place just across the street from the club. We ended the night at a rooftop bar ironically named Casa Corona.   

A few days later, I woke up to loud notifications on my phone indicating that a 29-year-old man who had visited five establishments in and around Homo Hill that same weekend just tested positive. Among the clubs was Trunk, which I had briefly entertained visiting. Thousands of people who visited the establishments in the same time frame were potentially exposed to the virus. At that point, Korea had been seeing fewer than 20 cases daily for a sustained period of time. 

The Seoul city government ordered all clubs and bars in the city to close indefinitely, and contacted more than 5,500 people whose names were on the visitor logs of the clubs. Only half could be reached. In a country with no legal protection for LGBTQ people, and where military laws still criminalize sodomy, getting outed to the rest of the country, let alone your family, friends and coworkers, is the closeted queer’s worst nightmare.

Information in the alert notifications made it easy to determine the 29-year-old’s workplace and, together with other known details of his whereabouts, was sufficient to identify him. In a statement apologizing for the spread, the man stated that he visited the gay clubs “out of curiosity.” However, those who are familiar with Homo Hill know that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Three iconic clubs in one night — this person was definitely no stranger to the gay nightlife scene. But any gay — no, any adult — in Korea would also know that he had little choice but to feign a deeply regretful straight man unless he wanted to be engraved in the national psyche as the second most despicable person after Patient 31. 

The virus spreads, and stigma does too. There was now a stigma associated with the entire neighborhood of Itaewon. My parents canceled the day’s plans because they couldn’t admit to their friends that their daughter was in Itaewon that weekend. 

Meanwhile, with many visitors of the gay clubs still in hiding, the government resorted to even more invasive means of tracking them down, extending the search to the vicinity of the clubs, and accessing credit card transaction data and location data from phone calls. I knew I had dodged a bullet by not visiting Trunk. Had I visited, I would have had to explain to my parents how I ended up at what the majority of Koreans thought was a degenerate place. Unfortunately, I did visit the convenience store right next to Trunk. I bought a cigarette with a credit card. I anxiously waited for the local government to call me, wondering whether my parents would believe me if I told them this was one of three times I ever smoked a cigarette.

The phone call never came. All the same, I was deeply shaken by the tragedy for both public health and the queer community. I remembered all the euphoric night outs at Queen, another gay club the patient had visited. Now-dramatic footage of its dark tinted front door with a large “closed” sign aired all across the country. Homo Hill was one of the few places we could be ourselves. Korean queers wanted and needed visibility, but not like this, where stigma associated with the virus naturally coupled with local homophobia.

If there is a silver lining to the May outbreak, it is that eventually the government recognized that convincing clubbers to get tested required the queer community’s cooperation. Anonymous testing became available, and concerns over outing led to significantly reduced personal information in text alerts. Still, you cannot undo the trauma and damage done to individuals, especially those afflicted with not only COVID but also prejudice. Reports of collateral damage followed: Some homophobic Christian groups went on gay apps to out gay men, gay businesses in Homo Hill either shut down or are still recovering from the financial loss. 

Korea’s pandemic response is still laudable, and it is an unmistakable privilege to have been a beneficiary of it. Needless to say, there are many ways in which it is quantifiably superior to that of the U.S. But upon experiencing these events firsthand, I can understand why a marginalized individual at the fringes of society, like a queer person or even a member of Shincheonji, might still have good reason to loathe a highly competent program that keeps the broader population safe, more effectively than other alternatives. I, too, am one of those people who chose to spend 2021 in California, forgoing the comfort of normalcy and universal healthcare back in Korea. Our grievances with the program are valid, and one can simultaneously recognize this while believing in the strength of the overall program. “Small” losses in rights are losses after all. And it is precisely by placing value in the most fragile kinds of rights that we affirm the whole purpose of trying to maximize good.

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Sunwoo is a columnist and coterm student studying symbolic systems. They have controversial opinions, and firmly believes that apples are the most overrated food out there.