Concerns are mounting in South Korea over the spread of the novel coronavirus that has spread beyond China, but inconsistent responses by President Moon Jae-in’s administration add to the worries.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun announced a package of measures, including entry ban for foreign nationals who have been in China’s Hubei province for two weeks, after a meeting with six related ministries. At around 5:30 p.m. on the same day, Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo explained the measures to reporters. Then, in the night, some of the steps were rolled back.
The government said it would stop issuing tourist visas to Chinese people, but two hours later, it revoked the step, saying it was merely considering such action. About two hours after that, it withdrew measures to raise its travel advisory for mainland China from “restraint” to “recommended evacuation” and ban Koreans from visiting China for tourism purposes. It gave the same excuse -- that they were under review.
The retracted measures are significant in that they can directly influence the safety of Koreans and the national economy. And they were rolled back in just a few hours. Nevertheless, the government did not give convincing reasons for the revocation.
The abrupt reversal has sparked speculation that the Moon administration may have been pressured by China which does not want other countries to deny entry to its citizens. Beijing criticized a US entry ban, saying it was not a gesture of goodwill. The new Chinese ambassador to South Korea called on Seoul to follow the World Health Organization’s recommendations on handling the new coronavirus, referring to its stance that travel and entry bans are unnecessary.
If the speculations are true, the U-turns are a serious problem. People’s lives are at stake. Even if there is pressure or protest, sovereignty over public health must not be infringed upon. Who is responsible for casualties of the virus in Korea, the government in Beijing or Seoul?
The general public and experts have called for the government to take tougher actions including a total ban on entry from anywhere in China. But the government and the ruling party are reluctant to impose such a strong measure, probably because it does not want a setback in its push for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Korea hopefully before the April 15 general election. Moon told a meeting with his secretaries on Monday that “difficulties that China faces become Korea’s difficulties.” He also said the latest measures including a partial entry ban were “unavoidable.” His words are effectively a message asking for Xi’s understanding of Korea’s partial entry ban.
With this bias toward China, the Moon administration cannot but oscillate between people’s demands and its awareness of China. A Cheong Wa Dae official said the government would deal with Xi’s visit and its response to the virus separately, but if it continues lukewarm responses, it will be more difficult to arrest the disease.
In addition to the issue of entry ban, there are other cases in which the Moon administration caused conflicts and chaos with its inconsistent response.
In choosing locations to house South Korean nationals it evacuated from Wuhan, it encountered strong backlash from residents of two provincial towns that were picked as locations. They were enraged, among other things, by the government’s withdrawal of its earlier choice of a collective quarantine site due to opposition from adjacent residents. It unnecessarily fueled a sense of being discriminated against.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said people suspected of being infected would not be allowed to board a plane chartered for the evacuation from Wuhan, but a day later, Health and Welfare Minister Park said all evacuees -- with or without symptoms -- would get aboard the plane because it was equipped with air filtering systems. However, Beijing held on to its position that people with symptoms in China be quarantined within the country, and eventually the government brought only those without symptoms back home.
At first the Education Ministry took a position not to consider suspending classes and postponing the start of schools due to concerns about the virus but later changed the position. However, it has not set specific guidelines yet on the conditions of when to suspend classes or school opening.
If the government wants to stop the contagious disease and build confidence, elaborate and consistent measures should be the starting point.