Issues & Insights
U.S. Army photo by Spc. Hayden Hallman, 20th Public Affairs Detachment, U.S. Army

Stop Comparing U.S. To South Korea On Coronavirus

Democrats looking to blame President Donald Trump for every single coronavirus death in the U.S. — as well as the economic wreckage caused by the shutdown — keep pointing to South Korea as proof of his guilt. 

In his statement on the coronavirus, Joe Biden had this to say: “South Korea detected their first case of coronavirus on the same day we did, but they had tests and sophisticated tracing programs to stop the spread of the virus, so they didn’t have to put the entire country on lockdown.”

At a press conference last week, PBS White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor hit Trump with a question about testing rates in the U.S. versus South Korea.

“You’ve said several times that the United States has ramped up testing. But the United States is still not testing per capita as many people as other countries like South Korea. Why is that and when do you think that that number will be on par with other countries?”

The media eagerly jumped on Trump’s goof about there being 38 million people living in the capital of Seoul, which has a population of 10 million.

But they’ve all missed the bigger problem with this fixation on South Korea. The comparisons are utterly pointless. 

Yes, South Korea has had just over 10,000 confirmed cases and only 186 deaths. Whereas the U.S. has more than 363,000 cases and nearly 11,000 deaths.

But South Korea could hardly be more unlike the United States in almost every way. Its population is 16% of the U.S. population to start with. There are 16 million more people living in California and Texas alone than all of South Korea.

It also has one of the most homogeneous populations in the world. The U.S. is one of the most diverse. This has profound implications on everything, including health care and health outcomes. South Korea’s murder rate is 0.6 per 100,000 people, compared with 5.3 in the U.S. (Is Trump to blame for that, too?)

Rather than compare a small Asian nation to the entire United States, why not compare it to individual states? 

Texas, for example, has only had 7,320 cases, and just 144 deaths among its 29 million residents. It had 686 new cases and 22 new deaths on April 5.  (South Korea had 183 and 3, respectively.)

California has 39 million residents. So far, it’s had less than 16,000 total cases, and 372 deaths. 

Florida, with a population of 21 million, has had 236 deaths among its 13,000 cases.

Seven states in the U.S. — with a combined population of 20.2 million — have death rates as low or lower than South Korea’s. 

Comparing the entire U.S. to South Korea also fails to account for the fact that New York alone is responsible for 36% of all coronavirus cases in the U.S. even though it has only 6% of the country’s population. 

New York is also where 43% of the coronavirus deaths have occurred. 

Throw in neighboring New Jersey and the two states account for 47% of all cases and 53% of coronavirus-related deaths.

Anybody notice that both are deeply blue states? If Trump is to blame for coronavirus deaths, then why are the Democratic governors and big city mayors of those states not responsible for their massive death tolls?

By the way, the claim that South Korea’s aggressive testing of its population is why it’s been so successful is shaky. That country tested 8,996 for every million in the country. 

Testing rates in Texas are just 3,061. In California, the rate is 2,977 per million.

In New York,  however, the testing rate is 16,000 per million. In New Jersey, it’s 10,000 per million. 

In the U.S., at least, there doesn’t appear to be any relationship between testing rates and death rates.

It is true that South Korea moved more quickly than the U.S. — as well as most other countries in testing and quarantining — and more aggressively tracked people with the disease. 

But that’s also much easier to accomplish in a small, homogeneous peninsula — all of South Korea’s landmass could fit comfortably inside Virginia — than it is in a huge, diverse country with massive amounts of international and internal travel. 

It’s also much easier to create a surveillance state, which South Korea established after the MERS outbreak in 2015, when “the government was given the ability to access citizens’ credit card records, cellphone GPS data, bank records, and the wide-ranging network of security cameras,” reports Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow Bruce Klingner

Klingner is right that this is “Big Brother invasiveness that would be anathema to American standards of personal privacy.”

Could the U.S. have done better? Sure. But so could France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and a host of other nations that have outbreak rates and death rates far higher than the U.S.

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I & I Editorial Board

The Issues and Insights Editorial Board has decades of experience in journalism, commentary and public policy.


  • South Korea started an effective treatment program early. The treatment eliminates the virus is nearly all person who catch it and does it early in the treatment. So few hospitalizations and few deaths. This treatment is only used sparsely in the US and with the same success but has not been widely accepted.

  • They were testing 10,000 people per day in Feb-2020, while the CDC was testing 12 people per day…and you don’t think that’s a significant difference?
    From that huge volume of daily tests, they immediately quarantined any positives, while the CDC sat on its hands. Does that matter?
    Then they went the next step, and were tracking, testing, and quarantining where needed, contacts of victims, but the CDC was not. Does that matter?
    If S.Korea did something better, why not identify it and use it here?

    • Your observations are valid and useful. Unfortunately the editors are more focused on defending Trump rather than examining our performance and seeking improvement. Our failures do not portend a good future as we try to emerge from this crisis. S. Korea will make the resources needed to test and track every new arrival in S. Korea. The country will continue to test at a pace that allows effective contact tracing. It will continue to monitor those who are suppose to self quarantine. While we know about all these measures, it would be a shock if the Trump administration successfully implements enough to prevent new waves of infection. There is no reason to believe that the administration, which still has not been able to provide enough tests, is going to do better in the future.

      • There is a cure. It is not getting much attention. But several drug combinations have shown great promise some with close to 100% success. One extremely effective treatment cost a total of $20. I am sure big Pharma is not interested in it. But if it indeed effective and not spin, the crisis is over.

  • Actually, comparing COVID numbers to the seasonal flu and using it as an argument to reopen the economy is wrong also as the quarantine is unique to COVID and it has probably kept the numbers low.

  • I completely agree with your story, but check out the YouTube video of the South Korean equivalent of Dr. Fauci from the content provider Asian Boss (English subtitles) There are many additional differences Between the US and Korea and at least one similarity that explains a failure for both countries. I found the video to be the best description of the Wuhan virus and what steps should be taken to fight a pandemic.

  • Based on the CDC’s latest report on COVID-19 deaths by age groups, published this morning, 79.1% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths have occurred among people aged 65 and above. The percentage of total deaths more than doubles at age 65. Conversely, far below 1% of our COVID-19 deaths have occurred among people aged 24 and below. How far below 1%? 0.09%, which is 11 times lower than 1%, or 11 times lower than 1 out of 100.

    Fewer than 1% of our COVID-19 deaths have occurred among people aged 34 and below. Fewer than 4% of our COVID-19 deaths have occurred among people aged 44 and below. Fewer than 9% of our COVID-19 deaths have occurred among people aged 54 and below.

    For added perspective, per the CDC data, in the U.S., the number of people who have been killed by pneumonia, as of this morning, is 2.4 times higher than the number of people who have been killed by COVID-19. 27,131 people have died from pneumonia, while 11,008 people have died from COVID-19.

    It is not a choice between extreme measures and doing nothing. Tailor our measures to fit the numbers. Require the elderly and the medically ill to stay at home and to avoid gatherings of any size. End these senseless blanket ba

  • Given the nature of the DMZ, South Korea is effectively an island rather than a peninsula. The U.S. has some of the longest borders in the world and (judging from the number of “undocumented migrants”) one of the most porous.

    • and how many cases have been linked to people coming from either Mexico or Canada?
      Our early cases came from people arriving from China, Italy, Egypt and others outside of N. America.

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