Coronavirus Quarantine in Korea

  • April 08, 2020

so we decided to move to Seoul. we booked flights to depart Mexico City on April 3rd and land in Seoul on April 5th.

two days before our flight, we learned the South Korean government was in the process of implementing strict orders for foreigners. there were a lot of articles about imposing a quarantine on foreigners flying into Korea after April 1st.

from Yonhap News Agency:

world-kbs-co-quarantine-news

from KBS World:

en-yna-co-kr-news

the Korean Embassy website said the following:

s-korea-embassy-coronavirus

we figured we qualify as residential guests given that we have an apartment. we also had proof that we had business in Seoul. Ryan is speaking at a marketing conference in the summer and one of our companies has a Korean presence.

after reading it all, we decided not to cancel our flight. we'd be able to self-quarantine by entering Seoul (i) for a long-term stay and (ii) because we already rented an apartment and had a landlord.

well, we were in for a surprise. Korea is currently enforcing 2 week quarantines in government facilities for all non-citizens. here's how it went.

Airport Miscommunication

4:15pm: touchdown at Incheon airport. there is a very long line for the quarantine station. when it's our turn, our quarantine officer takes our temperature (we're both in the normal range), asks us a few questions about our residence in Seoul, and hands us a piece of paper that says we're good to quarantine at our residence.

we take this piece of paper to another row of quarantine officers who ask us to download 2 apps. one is called 자가진단 and the other app is called 자가격리자안전보호. on both apps, we enter our contact information, submit our temperatures, and confirm that we have no coronavirus symptoms.

our quarantine officer calls our landlord, who luckily answers and confirms that we do indeed have a residence in Seoul. we're given instructions to take a taxi, instead of public transportation, and sent on our way. we think we're good!

4:45pm: next up is Immigration. we fill out lots of extra paperwork, going back and forth to the agent counter a few times each. one of the forms state that we agree to quarantine in a government facility. we tell the immigration officer that we're approved to self-quarantine in our apartment. she advises us to "just check the box that you agree to be government quarantined, then explain this to officers downstairs at the exit." we relucantly check the box and proceed to exit the airport.

as soon as we leave the double sliding doors, we are waved over as an officer has identified that we are American citizens. a man in an army uniform gives us a brown sticker for our passport and tells us to wait. we wait.

10 minutes later, more non-citizens have been gathered near us. we are all led outside. we think he is taking us to a transportation area. maybe we just need to be seen off in our own cabs, per self-quarantine guidelines.

then we stop in front of a large tourist bus. we tell him we've been approved for self-quarantine and show him a certificate that the quarantine officer gave us. there's some confusion since our Korean is Under Construction but another passenger in our group steps in and translates for us. the passenger turns to us and says, "he's saying that we're just going to be tested and then you'll be able to go to your apartment."

we nod in relief and board the bus.

Boarding a Bus to a "Testing" Facility

Seoul quarantine bus ride

6:20pm: we've waited on the bus for around 90 minutes and there are finally enough folks to fill the bus and depart. we've watched Korean citizens stroll out of the airport exit this whole time. they've all been on the same plane as us for 14 hours and departed from the same cities. non-citizens are just treated... a bit differently.

an officer seperated us, telling us that we have to sit one person per seat row. we see another couple a couple rows ahead sitting together but he doesn't say anything to them. hmm...

Arriving at the "Testing" Facility

quarantine-checkin

8:00pm: after driving an hour and a half outside of Seoul, we're in the middle of nowhere. we pull up at an abandoned hotel. there is yellow tape wrapped around the entrance. we're told to wait in line in the 40 degree (Faranheit) weather.

we think that if we weren't sick before, we're probably going to get sick now.

when we reach the front of the line, we learn that there is no "testing." we're here to stay. a few men in hazmat suits write down our passport information.

after an unsuccessful argument about the fact we were approved for self-quarantine, they tell us we can only do so if we have an immediate family member come pick us up.

this seems arbitrary as having an immediate family member does not decrease one's chances of infecting others or breaking self-quarantine. it also implies Korean citizenship has nothing to do with government quarantine; it's instead a punishment for not being ethnically Korean. what American couple would have blood relatives living in Korea?

we're told we owe 1,400,000 won ($1,144 USD at the time of this writing) each. we say that we're going to share a room. they respond that it's still 1.4mm won per person, even if we share one room.

we say that if it's the same cost, we'll take both of the rooms we're paying for. (this was us thinking ahead; it might be nice to switch rooms in the middle of 14 days without cleaning.) they say that's fine but we're not allowed to leave our rooms, aka we'd have to remain apart for the duration.

so we pay 2.8mm won, $2,288 USD, for 1 room.

we enter our quarters for the next 14 days. it's now 10p Sunday evening. from our windows we see the team from the lobby leave the facility -- the only personnel left are some policemen stationed in front of the hotel.

receipt-quarantine-foreigner-korea

the coronavirus app we installed at the airport tracks us all the way to the facility, taking 96 notes of our location over 3 days:

coronavirus-tracking-app

during the quarantine period we check into this app a couple times, but not daily. besides airport staffing instructing us to download both apps, nobody tells us if actually using it is mandatory. none of the staff at the hotel mention it either.

The Quarantine Room

seoul-quarantine-facility-room

the room has 2 twin beds, 1 bathroom, 1 mini fridge, and 1 table with 2 chairs. 

our 14 day kit is:


  1. 1 bar of soap

  2. 1 bottle of conditioner (no shampoo)

  3. 1 tube of toothpaste

  4. 8 hand towels (no body towels)

  5. 1 pillow and 2 sets of sheets

  6. 5 rolls of toilet paper

we're also provided with 5 pamphlets of instructions on how to construct our own trash can using cardboard boxes and bright orange bags with a biological hazard symbol. we are not provided with the scissors or tape referenced in the instructions.

there is a phone but the speed-dial entries for the front desk do not work.

our starter pack:

quarantine-starter-pack

our trash boxes and assembly instructions:

quarantine-box-instructions quarantine-trash-boxes

here's a full tour of our quarantine setup:

no coffee, no microwave, but at least there's wifi.

food

3 times a day, there is an announcement over the loudspeaker that states, "we are distributing food box. please stay in your room in order to not to face the staff. thank you."

food is a rotation of gimbap (seaweed and rice wrapped around veggies and spam), lunch boxes of either octopus or pork with rice, and a little snack (a cup of fruit, a few pieces of lettuce, chips, etc.). everything is from 7-11.

this is especially tough for Ryan since he's on a no-carb diet and a picky eater (no octopus). we design a system to ration our food so there's always leftover meat in the fridge from a previous lunchbox. we are both pretty strict about our nutrition but that is going out the window during this quarantine.

the most annoying part of the quarantine is that we weren't prepared. if we were told at the airport that we were heading to a lockdown facility without access to our own choice food delivery, we would have cleaned out the duty free store. luckily we did have some whey protein powder from our previous stay in Mexico City.

disinfecting spray

5 times a day there is an announcement that the hallways are being sprayed with a disinfectant. the announcement states that this disinfectant is hazardous and we should stay in our rooms.

around day 5 a new announcement chimes in between the disinfectant notices, reminding us to not leave our room. those who do, face deportation.

on day 6 we received a nice letter from the staff -- perhaps the first human connection we've made since arriving -- apologizing for the intensity of our quarantine lockdown. 

Korea Quarantine Apology Letter

our daily journal

our live journal -- we'll continue to update this during quarantine.

Day 1


  • Ryan has stomach pain. it's not related to coronavirus, we think it's minor food poisoning from some airport food

  • we take note of the timing of our feedings, clean the room, and sort out what we have in our luggage (clothes, 1 bag of cashews, and OTC medicine)

Day 2


  • we start the day feeling good and ready to make the best out of the situation. start creating a routine with exercise in the morning and rationing our food to hold us through the day

  • we do not have tape to make our trash boxes, so we write Konglish on a note requesting the tape and place in the hallway

  • we realize that we do not have enough clothes to last 14 days so we wash a couple of outfits in the sink with the bar of soap. this approach seems successful

  • we are only provided 1 lunch box. Ryan heads downstairs with a mask to ask them for 1 more meal. 2 young adults wearing army gear are playing around, spraying each other with water. they yell over to Ryan to grab one of the extra lunches on the lobby table

Day 3


  • loudspeaker announcement was in Chinese in the morning. it’s been English every other day. we were concerned that they switched our room language preference. luckily, the next announcement was in English.

  • we resolve to never eat rice again -- rice is the main event for every meal so far (breakfast, lunch and dinner). maybe we’d like it more if it was hot but we have no microwave and all of our food is ice cold (temperature is 40 degrees Faranheit outside)

  • per the previous comment, it basically feels like the first 30 minutes of famous Korean film Old Boy

Day 4


  • we made a sign asking if it's OK to walk around outside the facility, as the entire area is deserted and we've seen a handful of people on solo walks.

  • the sign has a "yes" and "no" slip that the worker can tear off, as a way to answer our query asyncrhonously in the hotel hallway

Day 5


  • pushing our luck a bit more, we order ~$65 worth of goods from G Market, the Amazon equivalent in Korea

  • two of our boxes arrived today, and were placed outside our door during meal time

Day 6


  • four more boxes arrived from G Market, including a ton of instant coffee and an electic kettle. now we're in business!

  • we figure a way to rig our Macbook to the hotel room television and start watching K Dramas

  • Ryan has been consistently doing more pushups every morning; today he did 425

  • no one has checked in on us all 6 days. the staff would have no idea if we had the virus and were struggling in our rooms. case in point: our neighbor was a med school student who was able to get his mom to pick him up after the first night. yet, the staff kept dropping off meals in front of his door. each uneaten meal is picked up by the hazmat suits the next day. since they don't seem to realize that room is uninhabited, we think it's odd they aren't concerned that someone hasn't eaten their food in 6 days.

the bright side

the majority of folks on our bus were Korean natives who naturalized to American citizens.

while inconvenient and frustrating, our situation is better than most: we work remotely, so we're able to dig into projects during the quarantine. our primary frustration is how we were lied to at the airport, boarded a bus on the pretense of being taken to a testing facility, driven to the middle of nowhere, and then told we were now under government quarantine.

for us, the quarantine is still worthwhile because we were planning to move to Seoul for 1+ year anyway. others are not so fortunate.

quarantine stories

there was a middle-aged couple -- the wife was quite sick and was having trouble breathing. her husband told us he asked the quarantine officers if she could be taken to a hospital but was refused.

there was a mom with 2 young kids -- we have no idea how she will cope in a tiny hotel room with 2 kids for 14 days.

there were a couple younger adults who were showing pictures of mom or dad's credit cards to pay the fee.

takeaways

hopefully this post helps someone who is traveling to Korea and believes the government-facility quarantine does not apply to them. while there is conflicting information about the newly implemented government-mandated quaratine in the news, this is our first-hand experience dealing with it.

every country is dealing with the COVID-19 crisis differently. some have closed borders, some have instituted curfews, some are asking everyone to practice social distancing. Korea, instead of outright refusing entrants, has decided to just make it really, really difficult for non-citizens.

Korea "led the world" in their swift response to flatten the COVID-19 infection rate. there are news articles about their ability to distribute thousands of COVID-19 tests, even to other countries in need.

yet, oddly, we have not been tested (other than our temperature). their solution is to quarantine all foreigners for the COVID-19 incubation period, regardless of whether they have symptoms or not. and we do not.

"innocent until proven guilty" is a luxury, not a right, when it comes to public health in Korea.

Korea hotel quarantine room

but hey, at least we got this sweet jail room view of a shut down waterpark.