The Koreas | Diplomacy | East Asia

Why Isn’t South Korea Buying Chinese Vaccines?

Like many Asian countries, Seoul is having troubling sourcing vaccines. But unlike its neighbors, South Korea has so far refused to turn to a ready supplier: China.

This article is free

The Diplomat has removed paywall restrictions on our coverage of the COVID–19 crisis.

Why Isn’t South Korea Buying Chinese Vaccines?
Credit: Depositphotos

Despite the great success of the South Korean government in virus detection and community quarantine early last year, the outbreak has shown a rebound in recent times. According to South Korea’s Central Disaster Management Headquarters and Center Disease Control Headquarters, 775 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in South Korea on April 27, bringing the total number of cases to 120,673. The 7-day average of new cases is creeping toward the 700 mark – lower than the peak of 1,000-plus daily cases seen in December 2020, but climbing from the steady 300-400 range seen earlier this year.

As a result, the South Korean public is generally disappointed with the government’s epidemic policy. A recent Gallup Korea survey showed that for the first time negative feedback on the government’s pandemic response outweighed the positives, with 49 percent of Koreans disapproving of the current situation. In the eyes of many South Koreans, the problem is clear: The vaccination campaign is not moving quickly enough.

Generally speaking, the South Korean government has been slow to introduce COVID-19 vaccines. Although South Korea’s policies on virus testing and community-level quarantine were once effective in controlling the spread and development of the epidemic, the “wait-and-see” and arguably even distrustful attitude held by the government and the public toward the vaccines – any vaccines – has made the progress of South Korea’s vaccination drive relatively slow. Despite the South Korean government’s plan to complete 70 percent vaccine coverage for the total population by November of this year, only about 4 percent or 2.2 million of South Korea’s 51 million population have received the COVID-19 vaccine so far.

In an interview with the BBC in February, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun defended the Moon administration’s late and slow vaccine rollout. Chung said that such a situation “allowed South Korean officials to see how the vaccine had fared elsewhere.”

In fact, the South Korean government had earlier joined the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative jointly proposed and led by the Global Alliance for Vaccine Immunization (GAVI), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the World Health Organization (WHO). However, South Korea has not benefited so far from the COVAX initiative, due to the global rebound of the pandemic in many areas and worldwide shortages and restrictions on vaccine transportation.

Part of the problem is that the South Korean government is still eagerly and persistently seeking vaccine supplies from the United States. South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong commented last week, “We are hoping that the United States will help us out with the challenges we are facing with the vaccines, based on the solidarity we demonstrated last year.” He also emphasized South Korea’s potential contribution to other U.S. priorities, such as diversifying semiconductor supply chains, to make the case for boosting U.S. vaccine supply to Seoul.

This weekend, the South Korean government signed an agreement with Pfizer Inc. to purchase an additional 40 million doses of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine. However, the U.S. government – whether led by former President Donald Trump, who insisted on “America First” and rejected the COVAX initiative, or current President Joe Biden, who promised to make COVID-19 containment at home a top priority – has repeatedly signaled that vaccines produced by U.S. companies will be prioritized for domestic demand in the United States. Given the still severe epidemic in the United States, we’re unlikely to see large and frequent shipments of U.S. vaccines overseas anytime soon. The United States is South Korea’s staunch ally, but over the past year Washington has offered little more than words when it comes to helping its allies to fight the coronavirus.

There is another possible vaccine source, one many Asian countries have turned to: China. So why hasn’t the South Korean government put in orders for Chinese-made vaccines? The answer to this question may go well beyond the realm of the pandemic.

It is interesting to note that, just the other day, the South Korean consul general in Shanghai, Kim Seung-ho, received the Chinese vaccine at a hospital in Shanghai. In an interview with the media, Kim said that he would also receive the Chinese vaccine if it were made available in South Korea. However, the reality is that the South Korean government has not approved the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines made by Chinese companies, despite the fact that the Chinese vaccines have long been made available in many countries around the world and largely have been proven to be safe and effective. Despite the fact that China and South Korea are close neighbors, and despite the achievements of the Chinese in fighting the pandemic, South Korea’s distrust of Chinese vaccines has not fundamentally changed.

Last September, Kwon Jun-wook, deputy director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a briefing on the status of the pandemic in South Korea that the administration was “discussing in-depth not only with experts in Korea but also with related ministries on whether to introduce a vaccine made in China.” It seems that the South Korean government has made its decision, and introducing the Chinese vaccines may not be a wise choice given the extremely delicate and tense situation between the United States and China. With the geopolitical factor in mind, Seoul’s protracted delay on introducing Chinese vaccines, despite the delicate references to security assessment processes, has been very predictable.

It is quite clear that the South Korean government has failed to secure a stable source of vaccine supply. Yet the current attitude and policy of the South Korean government regarding the vaccine indicates that the Blue House still favors U.S. vaccines rather than Chinese ones, especially when the COVAX initiative has had a slow rollout due to many technical and even political reasons. It seems that the Blue House still wants people to believe that the most direct and reliable source of vaccines is South Korea’s ally, the United States.

South Korea could easily place orders for Chinese vaccines, as so many of its neighbors have done. The only barrier is self-imposed: South Korea, as a middle power, still habitually places itself in the narrow geopolitical middle ground between the United States and China, and is unwilling to take bolder steps. When vaccinations take on a geopolitical meaning, countries limit their options to avoid sending the “wrong” signal.

In the end, it’s ordinary Koreans who suffer from the politicization of COVID-19 vaccines. They are the ones who have to face the relentless epidemic every day, but still strive to live and work under the dark clouds.