Cover: Public Health and Soft Power

Public Health and Soft Power

The Republic of Korea's Initial COVID-19 Response and Its Implications for Health Diplomacy

Published Sep 7, 2022

by Jennifer Bouey, Lynn Hu, Sohaela Amiri, Rafiq Dossani


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Research Questions

  1. What is soft power, and what advantages, limitations, and risks are associated with building soft power from health diplomacy?
  2. What were the characteristics of the ROK government's successful initial COVID-19 response? What were the national attributes contributing to the foundation of the ROK's COVID-19 response?
  3. Can these pandemic response and foundation characteristics be turned into soft power assets for ROK? When doing so, what limitations should be kept in mind, and what common risks associated with health diplomacy should be avoided? What are the mitigation strategies to reduce risks associated with health diplomacy?

During the early days of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020, the Republic of Korea (ROK) had one of the highest success rates in adopting effective nonpharmaceutical interventions, including symptom screening, testing, contact tracing, and case isolation, to rapidly contain the virus without a national lockdown. The ROK government's proactive strategy for adopting such interventions has received global attention for its success.

This report is based on a comprehensive literature review on pandemic response, public health systems, and soft power and subject-experts' insights and guidance. The authors identified six main features of this strategy and highlight national attributes that helped manage the initial response and considered possible approaches and strategies for the ROK to turn its COVID-19 response success into a successful soft power asset for health diplomacy in the future. The relevant assets span multiple domains, including digital resources and technological advancement; private-enterprise, education, labor market, and cultural resources; engagement activities; and government capacity. When attempting to apply these assets, however, the ROK should also address the potential limitations and risks of health diplomacy. Strategies to build decentralized channels for engagement, advocate ROK's democratic and legal process for health laws, utilize ROK embassies for linguistic and cultural guidance, and develop a sustainable long-term financial plan for science diplomacy initiatives are among the recommendations. This report is anticipated to encourage international collaborations, support the ROK's efforts in forging a strong alliance overseas, and increase global and Asia's health security.

Key Findings

  • The ROK's success in containing COVID-19 during the pandemic had six main features: a sensitive pandemic alert system and pandemic preparation; a centralized hierarchical response system to coordinate pandemic resource allocation and risk communication; a COVID-19 national testing strategy; stringent infection tracing and containment strategies; information and communication technology applications; and a two-track COVID-19 hospital triage system.
  • The ROK benefited from lessons learned from the 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak and possesses several attributes that helped the country manage the initial responses, including social homogeneity, a superb health care system, and technology resources, along with significant economic power and a governing style that combines a democratic process and strict penalties for policy violations.
  • The ROK can leverage its success with the initial response to COVID-19 to demonstrate soft power assets that span multiple domains, including digital resources and technological advancement, private enterprise resources, education and labor market resources, cultural resources, engagement activities, and government capacity.
  • When attempting to apply these assets, however, the ROK should develop a proactive strategy to address areas of limitations and potential risks. Strategies such as building decentralized channels for engagement, advocating the democratic and legal process for health laws updates, utilizing ROK embassies for linguistic and cultural guidance, and developing a sustainable long-term financial plan for science diplomacy initiatives can help the ROK avoid common limitations and risks associated with health diplomacy.


  • Build ROK soft power by leveraging the nation's advanced biomedical and digital technology. Such a strategy should emphasize that the digital technology used in disease tracking and quarantine monitoring was based on citizens' agreement on privacy rights unique to a pandemic era and anchored in the infectious disease law.
  • Build the ROK's soft power through public health science diplomacy. ROK public health agencies and universities that conducted training during the pandemic can be modeled as regional pandemic response training centers, and public health agencies can support ROK universities and develop peer-to-peer global research and teaching networks and public health degree programs. To build education capacity, it will be necessary to offer educational resources in many languages, promote cultural openness, and build a long-term financial plan.
  • Build the ROK's soft power through civil society and governmental exchange programs. Decentralized civil organization exchange programs and inviting government delegations to visit COVID-19 pandemic response projects can aid in the promotion of global networks, dialogues, and health diplomacy.
  • Build the ROK's soft power through engagement with international multilateral agencies and humanitarian aid. COVID-19 has strengthened the nation's capabilities in health diplomacy, including engagement with multilateral global health organizations, and has strengthened alliances with Asia Pacific countries. To maintain such momentum, the ROK will need to sustain the funding and align the interests and priorities of different government ministries. The ROK can also leverage its embassy's guidance and resources to help projects with language and culture adaptations in international settings.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the Korea Foundation and conducted in the Community Health and Environmental Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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