On the Frontlines

Covering Covid-19 as a one-woman-band at South Korea’s epicenter

While the nation began locking its doors and evading human contact after South Korea’s first coronavirus case at the end of January spiraled into an unassuagable wave of coronavirus cases, Wall Street Journal Seoul reporter Dasl Yoon, packed her bags and walked through the fire to South Korea’s coronavirus epicenter in Daegu, a city southeast of the capital where a cluster at a religious sect spread with frightening violence.

AAJA spoke to Yoon about what it was like reporting on the frontlines as a one-woman-band, how she tracked down sources while the city was on virtual lockdown and how she navigated everyday life as a reporter in the midst of a pandemic.

Dasl Yoon was walking her dog on Saturday around lunchtime when her phone rang.

“Can you go to Daegu? Let’s get a sense of the damage control.”

Yoon packed her bags that day and took a train 170 miles southeast of Seoul the very next morning on February 23rd — just five days after “super spreader” patient 31 from the Shincheonji Church of Jesus had tested positive.  With enough clothes for a three-day reporting assignment, Yoon headed to her hotel in Daegu.

Three days eventually became nearly a month of reporting solo at the frontline of South Korea’s coronavirus epicenter. We spoke to Yoon, who has been a reporter at the Wall Street Journal’s Seoul Bureau for almost two years, about her experience living and chasing stories in Daegu during the peak of its battle against COVID-19.

Photo Courtesy: Dasl Yoon

Q: How did you map out your day-to-day while reporting in Daegu?

DY: When I initially arrived, I just tried to follow the news and attend the daily briefings at Daegu City Hall to get a sense of what officials were thinking. I also approached people on the streets to ask how seriously they were taking this situation. But after the surge of Shincheonji-related cases, there was a new obsession with the church, so I started tracking down former and current members of the church, really anyone who knew anything about Shincheonji. Through the help of anti-cult experts and family of church members, I researched what it meant to be a part of Shincheonji and wrote a feature about Lee Man Hee, their leader too.

Q: Let’s talk about access. At the peak of the situation in late February especially, how did you find and approach sources during a time when the entire city was in isolation?

DY: Earlier on, I would just hang out around the hospitals, talk to doctors in the lobby and ask them questions casually. When things got intense though, the hospitals stopped giving reporters much access to their facilities and it was impossible to go inside to see patients, so I had to find a way around it by speaking to people who work inside the hospitals, like volunteer nurses and doctors, medical staff at the frontlines.

Naturally, I think when people are in an environment where they’re scared or feel threatened, they watch the government more closely than usual. They’re always watching the news at home. I got a lot of people to speak to me by saying, ‘Look, I’m a reporter for an American newspaper and I think it’s valuable for an American audience to know what the Korean government is doing so they’re better prepared’, and people would immediately begin voicing their opinions on what the government is doing wrong or right. In Daegu, I had to ask the people I met to connect me to more locals and interview many of them over the phone, because most people were staying home.

(How South Korea Put Into Place the World’s Most Aggressive Coronavirus Test Program)

Q: In March, the obsession with Shincheonji Church of Jesus began to dissipate as case numbers gradually declined. Why did you choose to stay in Daegu for two more weeks rather than return to Seoul?

DY: Right. Things started calming down a little, especially after Lee Man Hee held his press conference. I was unsure if I had to remain in Daegu. I wasn’t sure what the story I was chasing was anymore. But then I started diving into how Daegu is resolving this issue with nationwide aggressive testing and how it solved its hospital bed shortage by securing residential facilities for patients displaying mild symptoms or asymptomatic cases. I stayed long enough for Daegu officials to recognize me, as “that one reporter from foreign media,” which made it easier to interview them once new cases slowed.

Q: Even people here in Seoul who were somewhat distanced from Daegu felt nervous during the outbreak. What was it like living in Daegu as a resident, doing everyday things like shopping for groceries or walking around the neighborhood?

DY: To be honest, right now I’m more afraid in Seoul than I’d be if I were in Daegu. In Daegu, there wasn’t a single person walking around without a mask. There were rarely any people outside and stores on the streets had closed down. No one was eating out, and I had most of my food delivered to me. Even though there was an ongoing sense of danger because the city had so many patients, at the same time, having gone to briefings everyday, I knew that most of them were quarantined and could really feel that the people of Daegu were doing everything they could to keep their distance. As soon as I came off the train in Seoul though, not everyone was wearing a mask and restaurants were packed. People definitely feel safer here because there hasn’t been a huge outbreak, but if they knew any better or saw what Daegu experienced, I think they’d act differently.

Q: Were you able to interview any Shincheonji members?

DY: I was able to interview one current member. Other outlets did as well. But you have to realize that in order to interview someone part of the church, you have to go through the church’s PR team and get their permission by introducing yourself to them and explain exactly why you want to speak to their member. It’s not an easy process because people are already suspicious of them and local media and officials were bashing on the church. They don’t trust reporters.

Q: So given those circumstances, how’d you make your case to the Shincheonji PR team?

DY: I told them that we already have one side of the story out here and it’s loud. If you decline to say something, that’s up to you, but if you let us interview someone part of your church, we’ll include what you have to say. They agreed and we arranged an interview. Part of it also had to do with timing because later on after government officials started going after the church more aggressively, they stopped communicating with reporters one-on-one and told us in group emails that they didn’t have time to respond to our inquiries individually.

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Q: You spent the entire month working alone in an unfamiliar city during what was a frightening time for people in Daegu. Did you get lonely often?

DY: Honestly, I didn’t feel lonely. I don’t usually get lonely though. I think it’s just my personality. It’s important to not feel fazed or shaken by the fact that you’re working alone or that most of the time you’re doing everything alone — researching, reporting, writing. I’ve learned that you have to focus your mind on what you’re working on rather than how you feel. I actually enjoyed living in a city where no one knew me, and I think I’ll miss that. I think there’s value in being able to report on a topic you’ve never written about and be thrown into a story where you just have to make it happen.

One thing I did talk about with our global security team though was that they should let reporters take their dogs on assignments.

Q: What kind of daily safety precautions did you take while reporting?

DY: In Daegu, I was just careful not to be in a crowded area. Overall, they were all basic precautions, like not taking off my mask during an interview with someone or refraining from shaking their hand. Everyone was kind of participating in social distancing whereas in Seoul there are people who are more careful and others who are less serious about it since we don’t have to quarantine by law nor are we legally bound to stay home.

Ql: You’ve been back in Seoul for over a week now. How do you feel and have you been able to take a breather? What’s next?

DY: I’ve been back but I’ve been finishing up the stories I started in Daegu, so I kind of ran through the week without resting as soon as I got back. The moment I got back I visited Yonsei University’s Severance Hospital to write about the labs processing the coronavirus tests. Everyone needs a pause though, to catch their breath before jumping back into a story that’s not finished yet. I’ve also been spending time with my pup who my friend was looking after while I was gone. She gets a bit paranoid now about me packing a bag, so I’m trying to be with her as much as I can.