Political and Administrative Decentralization and Responses to COVID-19: Comparison of the United States and South Korea

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This study explains the variation of government responses to the pandemic by focusing on how centralization/decentralization in politics and administration creates conflicts and coordination problems. Specifically, the authors make comparisons between the U.S. and South Korea to reveal differences in macro-level structures and associated responses. One of the key points of comparison is the centralized, hierarchical governance system, which may thwart or facilitate a coordinated response.


This is an in-depth comparative case study of the two countries that showed different trajectories during the initial response to COVID-19. The comparison allows us to highlight the long-standing debate about centralization/decentralization and offers implications for government responses to crises shaped by political systems and administrative structures.


While there are inherent pros and cons to decentralization, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the institutional limitations in American federalism and the advantages that centralized administrative coordination creates during times of crisis. American federalism has unveiled systematic problems in coordination, along with the leadership crisis in polarized politics. The response from South Korea also reveals several issues in the administratively centralized and politically polarized environment.

Research limitations/implications

While the authors risk comparing apples and oranges, the variation unveils systematic contradictions in polarized politics and offers important implications for government responses in times of crisis. However, this article did not fully account for individual leadership as an independent factor that interacts with existing political/administrative institutions.

Practical implications

There is certainly no one best way or one-size-fits-all solution to mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic in countries under different circumstances. This article demonstrates that one of the essential determining factors in national responses to the pandemic is how the political and administrative dimensions of centralization/decentralization are balanced against each other.


Unlike previous studies explaining the country-level responses to COVID-19, this study focuses on the variance of political and administrative decentralization within each country from the political-administrative perspective and reveals the systematic contradictions in coordination and the leadership crisis in polarized politics.