Many South Koreans are still wearing their masks even after the law mandating them was lifted

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Lookism and respect for other people's health were cited by experts as reasons for why many South Koreans are choosing to keep their masks on.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

South Korea may have lifted its outdoor mask mandate on Monday, but one would not have guessed this was the case while walking through Seoul's central business district.

On the busy streets of Jongno-gu, home to numerous grand office buildings, many South Koreans are still choosing to keep their masks firmly on.

"I haven't been sick in the last two years, and I don't miss it. I'd rather keep my mask on, especially when there are so many people out and about," Kim So-young, who works in financial securities, told Insider. "Covid didn't suddenly go away this week." 

Her stance is in stark contrast to many worldwide who have celebrated their respective countries' easing of mask requirements. For instance, many Americans cheered and chucked their face masks mid-flight last month after finding out a federal judge had just scrapped a mask mandate for planes and trains.

"I'd be really worried if I was on one of those flights," Kim, 33, said. "Anyway, I don't mind wearing masks because women are expected to wear makeup to work, and this really saves me some time in the morning."

Experts believe one of the reasons why some South Koreans are choosing to keep their masks on is to get some relief in a society obsessed with looks. In South Korea, which has often been called the "world's plastic surgery capital," many people believe that looking good can help them advance socially and professionally. 

"We can't deny that attractive individuals are treated better than those who are not in Korea, including in the job market," sociology professor Bae Kyu-han from Kookmin University, told The Korean Herald. "Wearing a face mask can't be a fundamental solution to the stress related to lookism, but people can find relief by blocking people's gazes."

Visitors wearing traditional hanbok dresses pose for photos at the Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul on Monday after the mandate on outdoor mask wearing was lifted.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

However, Jo Elfving-Hwang, director of the Korea Research Centre at the University of Western Australia, believes the general reluctance among South Koreans to remove their masks boils down to social etiquette.

"The more accurate reason could be found in one of the highly valued aspects of Korean social life called yewi (respect). During the pandemic, wearing masks emerged as a sign of respect for other people's health and a visible sign of concern for the other person's wellbeing," she told Insider. 

"So to suddenly pull off a mask in a pandemic and then potentially spread an infection would be a potential loss-of-face situation," she said. 

That is certainly the case for Kim Sang-yup, a 35-year-old who works in marketing.

"Even though it's very hard to trace infections, I'd be really embarrassed if I became known as the guy who caught Covid and then spread it to everyone in my office. I'm keeping my mask on at all times," he told Insider. 

Since Monday, people in South Korea are no longer required to wear face masks outdoors except when attending events with more than 50 people, such as at concerts or sports matches. However, people are still required to wear masks indoors.

The country eased its Covid restrictions as daily cases fell below 50,000 on Wednesday, part of a downward trend from a peak of more than 621,000 daily infections in March. 

"If I start seeing a lot of other people remove their masks, then I guess I might be more open to doing it," Sang-yup told Insider. "I just don't want to be the only one."

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