Lea & Bong

3. Masks and Mass Mobilization in South Korea, with Lea and Bong Choi

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Lea and Bong call in from Korea to tell us what it’s like to live in a country that swiftly flattened the COVID-19 curve through a collective culture (masks, masks, masks!) and cool apps. The conversation expands when Bong credits this achievement to Korea’s newly re-energized democracy. He connects the COVID response to Korea’s mass protests in 2016, which led to the impeachment of a corrupt president and a government capable of responding to this crisis. They reflect on what it’s like to win and offer a vision of mass mobilization just in case, hypothetically, anyone listening is faced with a similar situation some day.

Show Notes:
Here are links to things we reference in this episode

  • shutdownwto20.org is a fantastic site that was just created for the 20th anniversary of the WTO shutdown. It is jam packed with resources, historical documents and reflections on relevance for today’s movements.
  • This Is What Democracy Looks Like is a documentary about the shutdown of the WTO Seattle meetings in 1999.
  • This episode is dedicated to the loving memory of Ellie Bluestein (z”l) who died at 91 years old on April 7, 2020. Ellie was a lifelong organizer, activist and chosen grandmother to Dispatches host. Ellie is deeply loved and will be dearly missed.
Ellie meeting great-grandbaby Nour, Dec 2019.
Ellie meeting great-grandbaby Nour, Dec 2019.

Episode Transcript

Becka Tilsen:
Hello everyone and welcome. You are listening to Dispatches. Conversations about getting through the COVID crisis with community care, mutual aid and personal and collective resilience. Today, you’re going to hear from Lea and Bong Choi, who are coming to us from South Korea. Leah is an expat and Bong is Korean. This conversation was so delightful for me and also held some surprises because we started out talking about why Korea has been so successful at flattening the curve without ever having a stay-at-home order. And the answers have to do with abundant testing and cool and effective apps that help you navigate public spaces, but also with a cultural orientation that honors the collective and asserts everyone’s role in keeping each other safe. But then the conversation evolved and I got a big education about how Korea impeached their corrupt president in 2016 through four months of mass protests called the Candlelight protests.

Becka Tilsen:
This conversation was really inspiring for me and really rich. And hearing this incredible mass mobilization of regular people just highlighted for me the degree to which, here in the U.S., resistance tactics like protests have been so thoroughly marginalized and cast as a thing that we needed in the past, and as trivial, immature, and ineffective when they are not any of those things. Most of all this conversation was a beacon of hope and a perspective for me that the way we’re doing things here right now is not the way that they have to be. This perspective is something that I am craving right now. So I also want to tell you quickly how these folks came into my life. So Lea and I knew each other and we’re the ones that set up the interview and I asked Bong kind of last minute if he would join us.

Becka Tilsen:
So that’s part of why you’ll hear Leah take the lead here. Leah and I haven’t ever met or talked on the phone, but we’ve connected pretty intimately because a mutual friend connected us last year when we were both pregnant. We were both over 40 and having our first babies and we exchanged messages and support and comradery during a very unique and strange time. And I remember really noticing that the stress and the pressure of being pregnant lifted a veil between me and other people who were in similar situations and that we could foster a quick and potent connection. And I’m saying all of that here because I feel a similar veil lifted between people inside of the pandemic.

Becka Tilsen:
That in the sight of the extreme stress and isolation and the horror, there’s also more connection, more courage, and more tenderness for each other. And I’m your host, Becka Tilsen. I’m an organizer, a movement baby, a somatics practitioner, and a mother living in Duwamish territory otherwise known as Seattle. We started this podcast and the tradition of our community organizing ancestors who taught us that we need each other and that we have each other. And that even in these unprecedented times we collectively do have what it takes to meet this moment with creativity, love, and grit. So without further ado, here is Lea and Bong.

Becka Tilsen:
Hi! Oh, you guys stayed up so late.

Lea Choi:
This is my husband.

Becka Tilsen:
Hi Bong. Nice to meet you. Am I saying your name right?

Lea Choi:
Yeah, just like water bong.

Becka Tilsen:
Great. And you live in South Korea?

Lea Choi:
Yes, our town called Gimhae is a suburb of Busan and it has very few people with coronavirus, people who’ve actually been diagnosed. We get government alert text messages and it tells us when someone is diagnosed. And then it tells you where the person lives and where they have traveled, what businesses they went to, what bus they took, the neighborhood they live in. And you can go actually onto the local government website and you can see a map that shows where they’ve been for the last, I think two weeks before they were diagnosed. You call the hotline and you say, “I have these symptoms.” Or you go to a testing center and get tested and if you’re positive then you call the hotline and tell them that you’ve tested positive and they take down all your information.

Lea Choi:
They ask you all the questions, “Where did you go for the last two weeks?” It doesn’t share the person’s name. Just shares their age, their sex and their neighborhood, where they live.

Becka Tilsen:
And all the places they’ve been and the restaurants they’ve eaten at.

Lea Choi:
And all the places they’ve been in the last week or two.

Bong Choi:
This government is doing pretty good. We’re organized, I think.

Lea Choi:
Yeah. And you don’t have to pay for treatment. If you’re diagnosed positive, the government pays for your treatment in the hospital.

Bong Choi:
And it’s very easy to find information.

Lea Choi:
Right, which hospitals, so you look on the app and it’ll tell you which hospitals are available for healthcare for COVID-19 for hospital care. Like which hospitals and taking patients in which aren’t.

Becka Tilsen:
That’s in the app?

Lea Choi:
Yeah, it tells you where to go.

Bong Choi:
We could prepare for where is not the place to go, where it’s okay to go.

Lea Choi:
So in Korea, we had very few coronavirus infections at first. In January, very few, less than a hundred, maybe 50 or something like that. It was very few. And then this church cult that had connections with Wuhan, China. They had members going back and forth between China and Korea and hiding the fact.

Becka Tilsen:
Wow.

Lea Choi:
And one of the church members, a woman, they believe it started with this specific woman but probably it was a bunch of members. They got sick, but the leader of the church told them, “Do not go to the hospital, do not get tested.” So we went from under a hundred cases…

Bong Choi:
Super spreading [crosstalk 00:06:12].

Lea Choi:
Right, they call her the super spreader… To a week later we were over a thousand and then it just went up and up and up and up. And once it started though, that’s when the government really started aggressively testing. They got test centers set up everywhere. In every small town there’s a test center. There are drive through test centers. Our national healthcare system covers 50% of the cost of the test.

Lea Choi:
So I think it’s about normally like $75 or something like that, but if you test positive, it’s free. And then your health care, if you have to go to the hospital, is also taken care of. It’s free. That is an incentive to get tested and get taken care of and be separated from the healthy people.

Bong Choi:
So when I go back to Daegu for my-

Lea Choi:
Daegu is the place where this all started.

Bong Choi:
Daegu city for my work. I was very afraid to go there at the time. That city becomes a hotspot. I didn’t have any information of which place is very dangerous. So I tried to find the application and it shows everything. I could find very safe restaurant.

Lea Choi:
We could avoid the places where no coronavirus patients had eaten.

Becka Tilsen:
Amazing. So it’s not just that there’s one app that really works. There are many apps that really work that all gather the same information and help people stay safe, help people know if they potentially have been exposed.

Lea Choi:
Yeah they’ve got a bunch of different map apps that show like different maps that show different things. So one map will show how many people have been diagnosed and what parts of the country and it shows a graph and stuff. And then there’s a different map that shows where the pharmacies are that are selling masks for your day.

Lea Choi:
There was a shortage of face masks here. So the government started mandating people with odd number birth years can go to get their masks on this day. And people with even number birthdays can go on this day. And you look at the map to see which pharmacies have the masks and what time they start selling the masks so you can go get in line for your allotment of two masks for person.

Becka Tilsen:
That’s really interesting because we started getting told that it didn’t protect us if you didn’t have the virus to wear a mask. There’s all this stuff out there about how it could actually make you more susceptible because you touch your face more and maybe it even puts germs closer to your face. But in other countries people are wearing masks all the time, so now we’re wondering if we’re just being told that because we have this incredible shortage.

Lea Choi:
It doesn’t necessarily protect you by wearing the mask. What protects you is if everyone is wearing the mask, then the virus doesn’t get spread as easily because sometimes you don’t know you have the virus. There’s a lot of people walking around asymptomatic or with very mild symptoms and they’re coughing and breathing everywhere. So if they’re not wearing a mask their spread goes farther. But if everyone’s wearing the mask then that stops the spread a little bit more.

Bong Choi:
Can I say something?

Lea Choi:
Yeah.

Bong Choi:
It becomes one of the ways to be having a manner of community these days. When you get on the elevator without a mask, people are going to look at you, “Hey, what are you doing? Take a mask!” Like that. So a mask is not to protect someone from the coronavirus 100%, but we think about the very important saving of face.

Lea Choi:
Everyone has to do it and if you’re not doing it, then you’re basically acting shameful.

Bong Choi:
Yeah. Nobody wants to be the public enemy. So when someone who has coronavirus goes to the restaurant, visits a restaurant or go to the company, it has to be shut down. That’s why we wear the mask on every day and it becomes like manners. That’s a totally different point compared to USA.

Becka Tilsen:
So I agree with you. I think here… I don’t think that people are as connected to their role in protecting other people.

Bong Choi:
Nobody knows I got… I’m the person who carried the virus, people having a symptom. You know what I’m saying?

Becka Tilsen:
Yeah, you’re saying we are projecting the stigma onto each other and onto you for wearing the masks. And really what you’re saying is so rational. It’s like if everybody wears it, then everybody’s taking care of everybody else. And I don’t think we’re connected to that here.

Bong Choi:
So today’s topic is about coronavirus, how to protect, prevent, the spread. So when I think about the different point to compare to other country, Europe or Western country and Korea. First of all, Korea governments who are well-organized by democracy. Have you heard about the changes for years before? There was…

Lea Choi:
We had an impeachment.

Bong Choi:
Yeah, impeachment.

Becka Tilsen:
Okay, maybe less than I should know. Yeah, tell us.

Lea Choi:
And our then president actually got put in jail. The impeachment actually worked like it was supposed to.

Bong Choi:
Can I say?

Lea Choi:
Yeah.

Bong Choi:
So these couple months they’re doing their business. Couldn’t do well.

Lea Choi:
A lot of corruption.

Bong Choi:
And corruption and the middle one big accident.

Lea Choi:
That the disaster of a ferry. There was a ferry from Seoul to-

Bong Choi:
Jeju Island.

Lea Choi:
An Island. But this ferry was taking middle school-

Bong Choi:
High school.

Lea Choi:
High school?

Bong Choi:
Yeah high school students.

Lea Choi:
High school students. It was a field trip and the company supplying the ferries was corrupt. And so they had not checked the safety and the seaworthiness of their ferries and so it sprung a leak or something. I don’t know. It was sinking. And then the issue was they were not rescued. They were on this sinking boat for how long? A day? And they were not rescued. There was no organization, there was no government response to rescue these children.

Bong Choi:
Candidates were hiding.

Lea Choi:
So most of the children died. And then the government tried to cover up the fact that they had dropped the ball and allowed all these children to die. And that’s what really galvanized the middle-aged middle-class mothers and fathers. Grandmothers and parents of these children organized and campaigned a lot to deal with this corrupt government.

Becka Tilsen:
Wow.

Bong Choi:
And so South Korean people was upset and we impeached and we tried to change the government system. We realized there’s too much corruption. We realized we are not the fucking animal who handle by stupid partition. We could make change like that.

Lea Choi:
That president was impeached and put in jail. The heads of the companies that were in her pockets were also put in jail. There was a big housecleaning basically where all these corrupt members of not just the government but also the companies that were working hand in hand. A lot of people ended up in jail.

Bong Choi:
And then this government’s doing pretty good. Could help us to prevent coronavirus crisis.

Becka Tilsen:
So I know this is a question that you probably might not be able to answer, but I’m just reeling here from the story that you just told me. That you had a corrupt president and then something happened and you were able to successfully impeach that president. That president stopped being the president and went to jail along with a bunch of corrupt people. So hypothetically, if we were to be in that situation, it feels like that reality is so far from what’s actually people can envision happening. How is it that you could do that? Like it feels like corrupt people do so many corrupt things to stay in power. How is it that you could get this person out of power?

Bong Choi:
How can I say? Protest we can do. Many, many people joined it, big one.

Lea Choi:
It’s about hive mentality. There is power.

Becka Tilsen:
Well, it’s about collective power. You protested, you held candles, you said?

Lea Choi:
Everybody was holding a-

Bong Choi:
Holding the candle.

Lea Choi:
A Lit candle. So it became known as the candle protest because-

Becka Tilsen:
Wow.

Bong Choi:
So then after that I changed my mind. I tried to fight with corruption also, but I was not one of the main members who has the group. Not like [crosstalk 00:16:20]

Lea Choi:
That’s what made it so amazing, it was a national movement. It wasn’t people who are connected by organizations. It was individual Koreans all coming together to work as a whole. It wasn’t just the radical people. It was regular people.

Bong Choi:
Just regular people.

Lea Choi:
Over a million people.

Bong Choi:
Over a million people from all around.

Lea Choi:
In every part of the country people did not let up. They told all of the government, local and national, you have to do something. We demand that you do something. And after, how long did it take? Almost a year?

Bong Choi:
Six months I think.

Becka Tilsen:
How is it that in U.S., or in Korea, everybody could protest like that?

Bong Choi:
It was possible in Korea.

Becka Tilsen:
Yeah.

Bong Choi:
Yeah. Okay. Hold on [inaudible 00:17:19]

Lea Choi:
I’ll be back.

Becka Tilsen:
Hi everyone. So while Leah goes to check on their baby, we spend a while having technical difficulties and the call drops. So I want to take a chance to let you know that in a few minutes you’ll hear me reference the WTO protests. And I want to let you know that the WTO is the World Trade Organization, which shapes global trade to the benefit of big business and rich countries. And in 1999 the WTO tried to have a meeting in Seattle and many, many of us gathered and waged massive protests that successfully closed the meetings and didn’t let them continue after a week. So this protests were really significant. And if you don’t know about that history, check it out in the show notes and in the credits of this podcast.

Lea Choi:
There we go. It’s okay. I turned his Bob Marley on. Nobody’s good.

Becka Tilsen:
[Ronin 00:18:10] likes Bob Marley?

Lea Choi:
Yeah, we just discovered when he went through his… The two month crying every night phase that babies go through. That was what soothed him.

Becka Tilsen:
Amazing.

Lea Choi:
And it still works. Every nap, every nighttime. We put on the legend.

Becka Tilsen:
Sometimes that stuff makes me believe in past lives.

Lea Choi:
Right? Cause I played Mozart to my belly and he came out, he had no interest in Mozart at all. Just likes reggae.

Becka Tilsen:
I’m wondering, for both of you, what it felt like to be in those candle protests and be connected with so many people participating in something and then what it felt like to win?

Bong Choi:
I got it. I got it. I got you. Okay, I can say. Before protests, everything was very frustrating to me, but now I’m very satisfied to living in my country. I’m very proud of my country too. I like my country now. [crosstalk 00:19:25].

Lea Choi:
I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that they did it.

Becka Tilsen:
Yeah? What was it like for Lea?

Lea Choi:
I was just amazed. I was just amazed. I was amazed! Like how could they do it? It was right after Trump was elected. So for me it was like, “Hey, K, U.S. Hey, take note! Look, this is how you do it. This is how it’s done!”

Bong Choi:
Yeah. I was very proud of myself too and we made it.

Becka Tilsen:
Yeah. How did it feel when you found out where… Was there a party? What did it feel like inside?

Bong Choi:
That’s the just…

Lea Choi:
A celebration across the country.

Bong Choi:
Everywhere. Not only Seoul, but also countryside. I was like, “Wow! Party? Honey, what kind of party? Just all whole street was party.”

Becka Tilsen:
It’s kind of a feeling, it’s hard to describe. It’s kind of all in the body and in the heart. I remember the day that we… So we had these really big WTO protests in 1999 in Seattle. And we shut down the WTO for five days and kicked the WTO out of Seattle. And the moment that we figured out, that we found out, that the WTO had asked Seattle if they could stay through the weekend. It was on Friday and Seattle said, “No.” It was really late at night and I was leading a lockdown of The Westin hotel, which was a big hotel that a lot of delegates were in. And we had a couple hundred people. It wasn’t that big. It was a lot of people who had been arrested and people were all over a protesting at the jail and different places.

Becka Tilsen:
And we had this little lockdown and it was one of the first nights of Hanukkah and we crowdsourced some candles and we made a menorah on a pothole. And I told a story that my dad always told me about Hanukkah that wasn’t religious. It was very much about people taking care of each other. And that the miracle of Hanukkah is that over eight days the community thought that they didn’t have enough. But they did have enough because people came out, like people made stone soup and just came out and took care of each other.

Becka Tilsen:
And we found out in the middle of that night, locking down The Westin, that we had won and the WTO was leaving Seattle and they had not finished their meeting. And there is no other feeling I have ever had and I think I will ever have. That’s like that feeling. And we partied. I remember looking at the faces of people who I had been in the streets with all week, people I had just met and people I knew for years and crying and just the joy on our faces was incredible. And when you talk about it. When I look at you, Bong, I remember the feeling I had. And it’s so hard to describe that.

Bong Choi:
That’s right.

Becka Tilsen:
Do you have any messages for our listeners?

Lea Choi:
Definitely. If they want to do something, if they feel like they’re at home and there’s nothing they can do and it’s out of their control, I would say bug your local representative to start testing. It’s mass testing. It’s being able to understand where the cases are and get them quarantined because that’s how you get this thing under control.

Becka Tilsen:
Thank you.

Lea Choi:
That’s what I would say.

Becka Tilsen:
Bong, do you have any last thoughts?

Lea Choi:
Do you have a final? what words do you have for the American people?

Becka Tilsen:
My mind is saying, get up, stand up.

Becka Tilsen:
All right. Goodbye friends.

Becka Tilsen:
Thank you everyone for tuning into Dispatches. I want to dedicate today’s episode to one of my chosen ancestors whom I just lost. Ellie Bluestein died at 91 years old on April 7th, 2020. Ellie was an organizer and an activist her whole life and in her twenties she met my grandmother Rachel and they became best friends and chosen sisters. My grandma knew how to create chosen family, so when she left far too early, she left me Ellie, and over the past 20 years I have gone to visit her whenever I could. Being with Ellie helped me reground myself inside a legacy of social justice work that was bigger than my current life and my peer groups. And that is a part of what propels me to create Dispatches. Right now on our website, you can find a picture of Ellie meeting my baby this last December. Ellie was fiery and smart and hilarious and loving and she will be dearly missed by many. Much love and gratitude to Ellie Bluestein.

Becka Tilsen:
For more about the WTO, there is a fabulous new website that organizers created for the 20th anniversary. You can find the link in our show notes or at shutdownwto20.org. There’s also a fantastic documentary that was created just after the WTO called “This is What Democracy Looks Like” and it was created by our own editor of this episode, Jill Irene Freidberg and Richard Raleigh. Dispatches is a Kitchen Dance Party production. Producers are myself, Becka Tilsen, Basil Shadid, and Molly Tilsen.

Becka Tilsen:
Today’s episode was edited by Jill Irene Freidberg. Many thanks to all of our friends and supporters. If you like what we’re up to at Dispatches, please rate and review us. Please subscribe. Please tell your friends about us, and if you have an idea of a person we should talk to or a story we should tell, please get at us at our forum on our website. Until next time. Remember that we need each other and we have each other.