The government and the ruling party come out looking hypocritical with regard to the guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Despite a special travel advisory from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which asks people to avoid going abroad due to coronavirus concerns, Lee Yill-byung, the husband of Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, traveled to the US on Oct. 3, presumably to buy a yacht.
The US is a high-risk country where the number of coronavirus cases has topped 7.3 million. Even President Donald Trump has contracted the virus.
Before departing, Lee said he could not live his life paying attention to what others thought of every single thing he did.
There would be nothing wrong with those remarks -- with Lee’s declaration that he intended to pursue his personal liberty -- except that his wife is a minister, whom people expect to set an example.
If his spouse were an average person, or if he lived in a world without a pandemic, an overseas trip to enjoy his hobby would have no significance.
But his wife is a high-ranking public figure who heads the ministry that has advised people to refrain from overseas travel. COVID-19 is still rampant in many countries, including the US. Even if he were not the husband of the foreign minister, under the circumstances it would be common sense to avoid nonessential travel.
Of course the advisory is not mandatory, and it is a private trip. But for the husband of a government minister, such a blatant exercise of privilege understandably angered many private citizens. Many of us patiently abided by the advisory despite the inconvenience of doing so. Many of us enjoy traveling too.
In defending the Korean government’s actions to fight the virus, Kang once said that privacy is a very important right, but it is not an absolute right. By this she meant restrictions on privacy and personal freedom could be justified in the struggle to contain COVID-19. These days, people might conclude that their rights are not quite so absolute as Lee’s.
Kang said she had known her husband’s plans beforehand, but that his departure was his own decision. She said “sorry,” but her explanation -- that it was hard to make him return, considering that he had delayed his trip several times -- calls into question whether she really is all that sorry.
People must feel stupid seeing her husband go abroad for an excursion -- he said he would take a yacht trip in the US -- while they refrain from traveling as they were told to do by the ministry she leads.
The government, citing the need for social distancing, asked people to refrain from visiting their hometowns and ancestral graves on Chuseok, which fell on Oct. 1 this year.
Many people refrained from taking part in the age-old Chuseok customs of seeing their families and paying their respects at their family graves.
But Rep. Lee Nak-yon, chair of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, went to Bongha Village in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province, on Chuseok to visit the tomb of President Roh Moo-hyun, despite the Chuseok travel guidelines. He signed autographs for citizens who surrounded him after visiting the grave.
Lee said Kang’s husband’s trip was “inappropriate,” but so was his own trip to Gimhae in view of the travel guidelines.
The police virtually sealed off Gwanghwamun on Oct. 3, National Foundation Day.
Despite two conservative groups each promising to hold a nine-car motorcade protest due to the distancing rules, the police installed about 90 checkpoints in the area to screen vehicles. They blocked streets and alleys, denying public access to Gwanghwamun Square.
Meanwhile, recreational facilities in and around Seoul looked more crowded than usual. Seoul Grand Park, a large amusement park just south of the capital, was open throughout the holidays. An estimated 20,000 people visited the park each day. Distancing was hardly thinkable. More than 200,000 holidaymakers reportedly visited the southern tourist island of Jeju.
The police justified the stringent steps to suppress the “drive-thru” rallies on the grounds that they could cause a resurgence of the coronavirus, but they went too far. One has to wonder if they were more concerned about the anti-government banners on the protesters’ cars.
Few would deny the need for distancing. But if the government really wants to prevent a resurgence of the disease, it should enforce the rules uniformly. Their selective, inequitable application is nothing more than hypocrisy.