Summer in Seoul

A UChicago Law Student’s Travel Experience during the Pandemic

Carol Kim on subway in South Korea
The author, Carol Kim, '22, on the subway in Seoul. "Social distancing is near-impossible on public transportation during rush hour," she said. "However, all passengers comply with the policy of wearing masks on the subway."

“It’s dystopian!” one of my Law School classmates exclaimed, from 7,000 miles away, as I lifted my phone to my webcam. I was showing her the government app that tracked my movements 24 hours a day as I self-quarantined at a one-room apartment in Seoul, South Korea.

“No, that’s why they’ve got COVID under control!” another friend said.

“Well, this definitely wouldn’t fly in the US—invasion of privacy—but the culture’s different here,” I said.

We were chatting on Zoom, swapping stories about how our 1L summers were progressing. Mine had barely begun—I had just arrived in Seoul, South Korea, where I was required to self-quarantine for 14 days before I was permitted to set foot outside my apartment.

Despite the complications of international travel during a pandemic, I had decided to go to Seoul for two reasons: 1) I was conducting a research project with a Seoul National University Law School professor concerning asylum law as it pertains to North Korean defectors; and 2) my paternal grandfather was very ill and I was unsure if I would get another opportunity to see him.

As a foreigner in Korea (though I am ethnically Korean, I am US-born and thus a US citizen and not a Korean citizen), I was required to self-quarantine at a government facility, at a cost of up to $100 a day—unless I could prove that I had a close blood relative in the country who would be my emergency contact and take responsibility for me. At customs and immigration, I had presented my uncle’s contact information as well as documents that verified my blood relation to my uncle, including a copy of the Korean family registry.

quarantine app
The home page of the COVID-19 phone app.

For the next 14 days, a government-issued phone application tracked my location and prompted me to answer several questions each morning and night: What was my temperature? Was I experiencing headaches, chills, or any other symptoms of COVID-19? and more.

In theory, this innovative app sounded great. South Korea is the most wired nation in the world; I trusted that everything would run smoothly in a country known for its technological prowess. In practice, the app was riddled with problems. If it was mid-day and I hadn’t moved my phone for a while, the app would beep loudly, mistakenly assuming that I had sneaked outside and left my phone at my apartment. This meant that if I were taking a mid-afternoon nap—something I often did while fighting jetlag—the app would beep incessantly, demanding that I verify my geolocation. Sometimes, the location tracking was outright inaccurate: in the first several days of usage, the app shrieked several times that I had strayed from my residence when I was sitting at my desk or making coffee in the kitchen. Further, the English version of the application contained multiple translation errors. Because I understand Korean, I was able to guess the intended meaning, but the translation errors could easily confound other users.

One day, my uncle—my emergency contact—called me in a panic, saying that an official from the municipal COVID-19 center had called him claiming that I was ignoring the center’s phone calls. Confused, I informed my uncle, and then the official, that I had received no such calls. This exchange happened again the following day. When videochatting with my mother, who lives in the US, I mentioned this strange, recurring issue. Suspicious, she called the official; she coolly informed him that it was uncharacteristic of me to dodge his calls and that he shouldn’t make such accusations lightly. Under questioning, the official admitted that he had never attempted to call me in the first place because my phone number was a foreign number. Instead of trying to reach me first, he instead called my emergency contact—because my contact had a domestic phone number—and misrepresented to my contact that I had ignored the center’s calls.

Eventually, I established contact with the municipal COVID-19 center via KakaoTalk, the popular Korean messaging app (similar in ubiquity to Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp in the US). The center assigned a new official to my case, who checked in with me via KakaoTalk approximately once a day during my first week in quarantine.

When she arrived in Seoul, Kim was sent a quarantine care package that included hand sanitizer, disinfecting spray, disposable thermometers, and (not depicted) face masks.
When she arrived in Seoul, Kim was sent a quarantine care package that included hand sanitizer, disinfecting spray, disposable thermometers, and (not depicted) face masks.

Communications generally proceeded smoothly from thereon, though I received conflicting advice when I encountered a plumbing issue during my second week in quarantine. One municipal official suggested that he send a team of workers in hazmat suits to escort me from my apartment and into an ambulance; the ambulance would then take me to a government facility, where I would spend the remainder of quarantine. Another municipal official gave me a more reasonable answer, saying that I could hire a plumber, but I would have to disclose to them that I was under quarantine and disinfect the entire apartment before the plumber’s arrival. Gathering that it was unlikely that a plumber would enter a foreigner’s apartment while she was self-quarantining, I endured the plumbing issue for the remainder of that week.

A robot at Incheon Airport provides information about COVID-19 safety, airport amenities, and flights that are about to board.
A robot at Incheon Airport provides information about COVID-19 safety, airport amenities, and flights that are about to board.

When the 14 days were up, I confirmed with the COVID-19 center that I no longer needed to check in with them. I uninstalled the tracking app, eager to rid myself of the app’s watchful eyes. I spent my remaining time in Seoul feeling liberated, now able to move about at my leisure. I was finally free of the constant monitoring.

Or so I thought. As I was drafting this article, my phone chirped, alerting me to a new KakaoTalk message: “Hello! This is the Gwanak-gu Office Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters. I am contacting you to check if there is any health problem in the self-price.”

It quickly became clear that by “self-price,” this person meant “self-quarantine.” Switching to Korean, I informed him that not only had my self-quarantine ended on July 21, but that I was no longer in Korea. After checking the municipality’s records, he apologized for the mix-up.

I laughed it off, realizing that I wasn’t quite free after all.