Document Type



Final Published Version

Publication Title

Journal of Asian Public Policy

Publication Date



COVID-19 has placed global and national leadership under a serious stress test by threatening lives and livelihoods on an unprecedented scale. South Korea emerged as one of the first countries to flatten the transmission curve despite its high population density and proximity to China, without imposing the aggressive lockdowns or complete travel bans that China and many other countries adopted. This paper explores two questions. First, what kind of institutional and legal foundations explain South Korea’s strong public health response to the pandemic? Second, from a historical perspective, South Korea evaded the worst of the SARS outbreak in 2003 yet failed to replicate the success with MERS in 2015. What explains these fluctuating public health responses within a country and how did this effect South Korea’s response to COVID-19? This paper argues that South Korea’s crisis management system developed strategic agility and flexibility in its hierarchical model that allows crisis-friendly partnerships and swift collaboration among key actors to manage public policy challenges. Studying South Korea’s responses to these three outbreaks will not only contribute to our understanding of cross-national crisis management but also further our comprehension of South Korea’s evolution in public health response through analysing intra-national variations.