Date of Award

August 2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Kristin M Sziarto

Committee Members

Anne Bonds, Hyejin Yoon, Ryan Holifield, Xin Huang


COVID-19, Illiberalism, MERS, Sewol Ferry Disaster, South Korea, Speculation


This dissertation asks how we should understand a post-authoritarian state’s actions in the case of three crises in which many died: the MERS outbreak of 2015, the Sewol Ferry Disaster of 2014, and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019 to the present. The first two of these involved gross mismanagement as well as cover-ups and violence against people questioning the state’s actions and narrative. The third was more competently handled, yet there are connections among the patterns of governance in all three cases that raise questions about the South Korean state and how certain kinds of state violence and narratives are re-emerging in a hybrid form of liberalism and authoritarianism in a post-dictatorship state.Drawing on varied qualitative methods including archival material, participant observation, interviews, and autoethnography, I argue that the South Korean state used a variety of illiberal and financial practices under the banner of emergency and democracy, such as censorship, mass quarantines, and state-led speculation, to protect particular private interests like chaebols (family-owned business conglomerates in South Korea) and biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms. The management of the disease outbreaks exacerbated neoliberalization and individualization of public health, as well as stock market bubbles and stock speculations. Also, the South Korean state exerted authoritarian governance during and after the ferry disaster including the encouragement and mobilization of para-statal right-wing groups to harm the disaster victims’ families. My findings support existing geographic research that argues against dichotomizing ‘democratic’ and ‘non-democratic’ states. Rather we must pay attention to the power-geometries of multiple state agencies at multiple scales in relation to economic development projects and projects of state legitimation. Further, by explaining how illiberal and neoliberal processes and particular actors came to matter in politics of emerging infectious diseases and other disasters in South Korea, understood as a liberal and post-dictatorship state, this dissertation contributes to the sociopolitical understanding of infectious diseases and public health via a mixture of authoritarianism and neoliberalism.

Available for download on Thursday, August 08, 2024

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