The world has been looking toward South Korea for guidance, and the reasoning is obvious. Even though the country’s exponential growth of COVID-19 infections in late February was not met with widespread quarantine or lockdown, the Korean government’s swift response, prodigious amount of testing, and pointed quarantine regulation guidelines resulted in a steady decrease in infections and a low mortality rate.
Rapid and widespread testing has been lauded as a crucial step in South Korea’s response, with drive-through testing particularly heralded as truly innovative. Others have called attention to the mass surveillance assemblage weaving throughout Korean society as quintessential to mapping disease outbreak. Several news outlets and pundits claimed the importance of “public solidarity” in this time of crisis as Korean citizens, after being provided with transparent information about viral pathways, patient clusters, hotspots, and quarantined individuals, began taking COVID-19 seriously.
However, there is a more nuanced explanation, not of success (versus failure), but of why South Korea responded in the ways they did. South Korea has stood on the precipice of destruction since the Korean War (1950–1953), and organized around the possibility of another war with North Korea. The authoritarian regimes following the Korean War until democratization in 1987, fused national security to the semiotics of daily life, embedding the logics and practices of protecting the nation into the very fabric of South Korean society. Mandatory military conscription, regularly scheduled civilian drills, and security infrastructures built into Korean cityscapes still exist today to ward off peninsular destruction. Yet these security practices have become mundane over the years. Even as North Korea’s nuclear weapon capability has expanded, they are seen as more of a nuisance than a nemesis. During the 2017–2018 North Korean nuclear crisis, an interlocutor in the middle of his military conscription bemoaned that the crisis simply meant longer hours and more work.
The spectacular of destruction collides with the ordinary of daily life. I call this banal security—the making of security, and the destruction it professes to prevent, as a natural and normative part of daily living to the extent of its unconscious erasure. Trading the extraordinary for the ordinary, banal security operates in a world where “that’s just how it is” suffuses the psychic terrain. When a nation has experienced a literal existential crisis for decades, uncertainty is simply part of that landscape.
Banal security provides a unique lens to assess South Korea’s COVID-19 response beyond claims of citizen solidarity, South Korea and East Asia as a communal culture versus the individualization of the West, and even democratic decision-making. The fact that the Koreans, for the most part, accepted the government’s mobilization of mass surveillance to track and map outbreak and quarantine violations indexes the subjective experiences with, and embedded history of, national security. The lack of widespread public panic further illustrates the routinized security in response to potential destruction. While uncertainty looms over elections in the United States, some Koreans were out in facemasks campaigning for the April 15 National Assembly elections. Things are certainly not business as usual, but the experience of living on the edge of annihilation for more than 70 years mitigates public panic.
And yet, in making security banal, pieces and people are forgotten, removed, erased, and destroyed. Banality itself is insidious and violent, for as Hannah Arendt reminds us, “that’s just how it is” could easily be rearticulated as “he didn’t know what he was doing” in which thoughtlessness transforms innocence to evil, or vice versa. Korean news agencies began reporting that the new local transmissions in May were caused by gay men visiting gay clubs, bars, and saunas. While still ongoing, some Koreans are encouraging others to go on queer dating apps to out those using the apps. Queer Koreans and activists are understandably scared. Not only are they faced with the problem of viral communicability, but they are once again targeted as biological threats for being queer.
The fact that the scope and scale of mass surveillance, for example, are now normalized and incorporated into the security assemblage invites an equally disturbing thought—will it ever go away? The short answer is no. Banal security is skillful in folding practices and discourses thought exceptional in the moment into a much larger assemblage. What is novel or spectacular today becomes “business as usual” later. And while certainly not unique to South Korea, the very tools that some may perceive as helping Koreans weather this pandemic are the mechanisms that make these surveillance practices banal.
Timothy Gitzen is a postdoctoral fellow and a member of the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong.
Cite as: Gitzen, Timothy. 2020. “On Banal Security.” Anthropology News website, June 17, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1427