The Itaewon panopticon
The author is the deputy policy director of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The language of the gathering ban posted at the entrance of Club King in Itaewon is well-mannered yet coercive. “Business owners and users not abiding by the order will be liable for treatment and disinfection costs when positive cases are confirmed and will be subject to legal actions.” Club Queen, located about 20 meters (66 feet) from Club King, was also ordered not to open its business. Most of the clubs and cafes in the neighborhood are either subject to the gathering ban or voluntarily closed.
When I visited the Usadan-ro area in Itaewon in the afternoon on May 10, the streets were devastated. I recalled the memory of visiting Itaewon with American G.I.s while serving in the military 30 years ago. I don’t remember if it was the same uphill street where Club King was located or the next block, but I am sure it was around there, close to Hamilton Hotel.
Today, Itaewon is the most talked-about area in the Korean society. The fast spread of Covid-19 from clubs there stirred Korea’s disease control efforts that President Moon Jae-in advocated last week. The rate of spreading is relentless. Less than a week after the first confirmed case, more than 100 are confirmed infected. It is a repeat of the Shincheonji church nightmare in Daegu. Some lament that all the hard work could be undone. Given the confirmed cases not just in Seoul but also on Jeju Island, the hard work may have already been undone.
The main carriers of the Covid-19 virus from the clubs are young people in their 20s and 30s. They are energetic and spreading the virus rapidly. They are confident about health and treat the damage from the infection lightly.
The spread of Covid-19 from Itaewon clubs added one more characteristic to the age group. They are in hiding. As the clubs are known to be catering to gay customers, they hide the fact that they visited the clubs and do not expose themselves. Many of the people who were in Itaewon may not be in this group and visited for just fun, but they, too, are afraid of being exposed. More than 2,000 of the 5,500 visitors in the area over the long holiday week are not accounted for. The quarantine authorities obtained the Shincheonji membership list to search the people in contact with patients, but this time, it is not possible. The disease control authority is on high alert.
Mobile phones and credit cards have become the tools to trace the visitors. The government and the city of Seoul obtained the mobile phone usage records through the cell towers around Itaewon through telecommunication providers. The records not only show their phone numbers but also their addresses and names. The location tracing through cell towers was often conducted in the past, but this time, the list is far more extensive as it includes 10,905 people. As the fight against an epidemic is all about speed, this tracing is imperative to prevent further spreading.
In addition to the closed circuit cameras on the streets, mobile phones and credit cards have become surveillance channels. It is hard escape surveillance. I am reminded of the panopticon — a circular prison where all prisoners can be watched from one location. It would inevitably cause human rights controversy. It is scary that my information is easily accessed and other people can view it.
While explaining about the collection of personal location information through mobile phones, the government pledged to focus on human rights protection. It asked people to trust that personal information is only used for disease control purposes. Clause 3, Article 58 of the Personal Information Protection Act defines that information collection is allowed in urgent situation for the good of the public.
It is widely understood that a certain level of personal sacrifice and information release is necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19. But the current state is not likely to last long. Some foreign media criticize Korean society’s surveillance and lack of respect for privacy. Yet we should not simply brush off the criticism as an ill-conceived attempt to play down Korea’s disease control accomplishments.
Personal information protection is a duty of the government. The head of the Personal Information Protection Commission is vice-ministerial level. When the government requests an extensive information on individuals, how far would telecommunication and credit card companies go to oblige? What is the standard of a government asking for personal information? Respect for privacy is no exception in the era of coronavirus. The Personal Information Protection Commission advocates for safe personal information that keeps the people reassured. That is not a bad standard. But how can it be practiced? That’s a new challenge for Korea in the age of coronavirus.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 14, Page 25