Going to Korea in the Pandemic

South Korea quickly emerged as a global leader in the fight against the novel coronavirus following its quick and effective response to the outbreak after the first confirmed case on January 20. Social distancing, masking culture, and mindful hygiene practices still remain intact, but life is seemingly back to normal as statistics show South Korea’s response efforts successfully “flattened the curve.” Today, it is not uncommon to see cafes and restaurants bustling with patrons. Masks and toilet paper are available for purchase at any pharmacy or grocery store. The Moon administration shipped 600,000 test kits to the United States on April 14. Voters were handed gloves as they took to the polls for the 21st parliamentary elections on April 15 as scheduled.

But regardless of the efficacy of any given country’s response and the resulting effects on its society, the burden of the virus is still felt at the individual level – people are uniquely affected based on their circumstances. Despite Korean society’s return to normalcy, there are trade-offs to resuming daily life for the average citizen absent universal testing or a vaccine. One area where these trade-offs materialize for people like me – a U.S. citizen born and raised in Korea who comes from an “international” family – is travel. My parents, two siblings, and I are spread out across five different cities in four different countries. For most of my life until now, we maintained our family unit by traveling to each other as frequently as possible thanks to access to international travel in a globalized world. However, with new types of controls like travel bans and strict quarantine measures, travel seems daunting and in my dad’s case, impossible. My siblings and mom convened first in Los Angeles, then flew to Korea in early March. My dad hasn’t been able to come home since January due to border closures in the country where he resides. As Washington, D.C. was named as the next “hot spot” in the U.S. after New York, I made the decision to go home to Korea.

I arrived at Dulles International Airport at 11:30am on Friday, April 10 to take the 1:25pm Korean Air flight – the second to last available flight before the airline suspended routes to and from Incheon on April 13. Dulles was nearly deserted save for the Korean Air counters, which were teeming with people. In fact, it was more crowded than any other time I had flown to Korea from Dulles, pre-pandemic. Immediately after I presented my U.S. passport at the check-in desk, the officer furrowed her brows with worry and softly asked if I had another Korean passport or an Overseas Korean Resident Card to which I answered her, no. She informed me that I would have to spend two weeks at a quarantine facility upon arrival. I showed her my Isolation Exemption Certificate. The tension left her face and she momentarily disappeared to make a copy of the form. When I asked what the customs procedure would look like at Incheon, she said she didn’t know. The officer held up a handheld thermal detection device to my forehead and took my temperature before issuing my boarding pass.

Just before 1pm, I lined up at my departure gate to board the plane. Again, when I presented my passport and boarding pass, the boarding pass checking officer warned me – much less discreetly this time – I would be required to isolate in a quarantine facility for two weeks. I presented my exemption certificate and they let me through. I suspect if I tried to board without one, they would have tried to convince me to turn back.

On the plane, flight attendants handed out declaration forms. There are two new forms travelers arriving at Incheon are required to fill out in addition to the usual customs declaration form. One is a Travel Record Declaration form with instructions on how to install the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Self-Diagnosis Mobile App. The other is a Health Declaration form.

At 4:50pm on April 11, my flight landed at Incheon International Airport. I deplaned and walked down the corridor that leads passengers to the first checkpoint, the quarantine area. Normally there are only one or two unassuming officers who sit at the quarantine checkpoint as they silently watch travelers walk past the thermal imaging cameras that are positioned on tripods hoisted next to the officers. This time, all six booths were staffed with one airport staff member on foot, ushering travelers. I showed the quarantine officer my passport and they asked for my health declaration form. At this point, the officer told me matter-of-factly I would be transported to a quarantine facility. I presented my Isolation Exemption Certificate and the officer said I could leave it with her. She gave me a lanyard with a badge that contained a yellow card in the plastic sleeve. She told me this would allow airport staff guide me through various checkpoints. This lanyard is only given to foreigners. There were other colors (blue, red, maybe more). I believe yellow may have been designated for “short-term” foreigners while other colors were reserved for “long-term” foreigners, but I can’t be sure.

Directly behind the quarantine booths there was a makeshift, roped-off area for the next checkpoint. About four soldiers lined up next to each other ensured everyone had the correct Self-Diagnosis Mobile App downloaded on their phones and meticulously guided them through the app’s features. Commotion picked up as bleary-eyed travelers scrambled to turn on their cellphones, activate their cellular service, or connect to the airport Wi-Fi. I wasn’t allowed past this point until I showed that I submitted my first self-diagnosis survey. Everyone is required to submit the survey twice daily.

Once I successfully downloaded the app and submitted my first self-diagnosis survey, I walked about ten yards to yet another area where several staff members were stationed two meters apart at a long table. They asked me for my cellphone with the application open and my travel record declaration form. They took a few moments to confirm that the information entered on the app matched the information I wrote on the form. Once they confirmed my information, they gave me a Quarantine Certificate card.

As I started heading over to the immigration booths, staff members stopped me when they saw my lanyard and gave me several forms to fill out based on my lanyard color. These forms consisted of agreements to spend 14 days at a quarantine facility and that quarantined individuals would be responsible for the incurring costs. I explained that I had an Isolation Exemption Certificate and they let me proceed to the immigration booth.

At the booth, I presented my passport and travel record declaration form to the immigration officer. Confused, the officer asked why I didn’t have more forms including the quarantine facility agreements. I told her about the exemption certificate and explained that I submitted the paperwork at the quarantine booth a few moments ago. She asked me to retrieve it, so I returned to the quarantine area. The quarantine officer who had examined my paperwork asked why I needed it back and summoned her supervisor. The supervisor reluctantly returned my form to me. I took it back to the immigration officer and at this point, a slight sense of internal panic began stirring while I asked whether I would be able to go home and if I would be administered a COVID-19 test at the airport. She sent me to the immigration office and said they would know.

At the immigration office, the officer took my fingerprints and picture. More supervisors were summoned. I inquired again about going home and being tested and again, I was told the quarantine officers waiting in the Arrivals Hall would know.

I left the immigration office, picked up my bags, submitted my customs declaration form as I left the baggage claim area, and walked through the automatic double doors to the Arrivals Hall where people were eagerly waiting for their loved ones. I saw my mom pressed up against the concave railing waving enthusiastically at me, calling out my name (side note: I had told her before my flight she shouldn’t come out to the airport since I wasn’t sure what would happen when I arrived, but Korean mothers are unstoppable). I instinctively started walking towards my mom, but even before I had a chance to change my footing in her direction a quarantine officer spotted my yellow badge hanging from my neck (which I forgot I even had, at this point) and swiftly escorted me to the testing area. The COVID-19 testing area was set up outdoors under tents immediately outside the double doors of the Arrivals Hall. The test took less than two minutes. The quarantine officer in charge informed me it would take six to eight hours to get results and that in the meantime, I would have to go to a quarantine facility for the night and escorted me to a bus that was waiting nearby.  

There were police officers guarding the bus that would transport foreigners to the quarantine facility. I showed them my yellow badge and my exemption certificate. Over the hour-and-a-half period while I sat in the idle bus waiting for more passengers, I was called off the bus by police officers three or four times over the span of an hour because my exemption certificate was “causing chaos and confusion” in their force. They asked me again and again what it was, where I got it, and what it meant until eventually they took a picture.

At around 7pm, a group of ten foreigners including myself left for the National Youth Center in Cheonan (천안청소년수련원) located a 1.5-hour drive away from the airport.

We arrived at 8:30pm. There was a group of four or five healthcare and quarantine personnel in HAZMAT suits waiting for us on the street. The lead officer, who was only distinguishable from the rest of the personnel by his red-framed glasses and perfect English, escorted our group inside where there were chairs, all two meters apart, set up and we were handed forms to fill out. I showed a staff member my exemption certificate and was told I would be notified of the results at around 9am the next morning. If my results were negative, my mom could pick me up and take me home. Another staff member told me I’d be transported back to the airport and I would be allowed to go home from there. Yet another staff member told me whether or not I would be allowed to leave depended on the collective test results of the group.

We were all handed keys to our rooms, two dinners (one was an assortment of snacks and entrees from 7-Eleven and another was a ready-made lunch box from T.G.I. Friday’s.), and toiletries and towels. I checked the clock: 8:47pm. I pushed my suitcases to the corner of the room – it was bare-bones, but clean. There was nothing in the room except for a wardrobe unit where sleeping pads, blankets, and a pillow were neatly tucked away on the top shelf. I accidentally left the chocolate bar from my snack pack on the floor while I unrolled the pads and made my bed for the night. When I picked it back up, the chocolate had melted into goo inside its packaging. At least the floor was heated. 

I stayed awake most of the night. It was mostly due to jet lag, but also because the chafing of HAZMAT suits and the whirring of sanitation machines echoed through the hallway every few hours. At 7:50am the next morning, the PA system blared on with an announcement – first in Korean, then English – that breakfast would be dropped off outside our doors. The voice emphasized, “do not – I repeat, do NOT – leave your rooms until further announcement has been made.” Moments later another announcement informed us we could open our doors to retrieve our breakfast. I peeped out, trying to look for other bobbing heads and hoping that perhaps if I could lock eyes with these strangers, I could somehow offer tacit consolation. After all, I was in my home country where I was born and raised despite being in an unfamiliar location. I couldn’t imagine how I might feel if were going through this in a foreign country. I didn’t see anyone.

At 10:20am, I heard a knock on my door. An officer in a HAZMAT suit handed me my test results (negative). She explained that two other individuals in the group I arrived at the facility with tested inconclusive overnight. They had been re-tested immediately and we were waiting for their second test results. Regardless of their final test results, the rest of us who tested negative would still be able to leave soon.

At 11am, there was another knock. Same HAZMAT suit, different face. I was told I could leave. I called my mom who had been waiting on standby for me to send her the green light to come pick me up. We all went back outside to the street where we had been dropped off. The same man who had greeted us the night before appeared, this time wearing a white shirt with a cable-knit cardigan on top, slacks, and Crocs. Based on his attire, I deduced that he must be a doctor. I only recognized him from his voice and red-framed glasses. We were split into two groups – one going to the parking lot and one going back to the airport. I stepped over to the parking lot group’s side of the invisible partition.

After a final head count, a 3-minute bus drive took us to the parking lot. Including myself, there were six people in my group: a lone middle-aged man with a British accent, a Ukrainian mother with her two young kids, and two Singaporean diplomats. As we stepped off the bus, someone hurried over to the middle-aged gentleman to help him with his bags. The young kids sprinted across the parking lot and into the arms of a man who I can only assume was their father. The diplomats were greeted by two solemn-faced professionals wearing suits and drove off in a black car with a diplomatic license plate. I stood in the parking lot and stared at the foliage nearby – trees shedding cherry blossom petals, shrubbery with freshly-bloomed forsythias, and spots of brown and green on the mountainside – until I saw my mom’s car pull up through the entrance.

Dana Kim