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[News Focus] Chinese masks highlight amicable ties between Seoul, Beijing

Protective masks that will be sent to Korea are being loaded onto a truck in China`s Anhui Province on Tuesday. Yonhap
Protective masks that will be sent to Korea are being loaded onto a truck in China`s Anhui Province on Tuesday. Yonhap

China’s decision to provide masks to South Korea while imposing tit-for-tat entry restrictions on Japanese nationals is highlighting Seoul-Beijing relations.

From Tuesday, China temporarily halted its visa waiver program for Japanese nationals coming to China for tourism, to visit acquaintances or to change planes. Visa-free travel will still be allowed for Japanese visiting relatives in China or going there on business.

The measure is thought to be a response to Japan’s latest travel restrictions on Chinese nationals. Starting at midnight Monday, Japan voided visas issued at its diplomatic missions in China until the end of the month, and those arriving from China will be subjected to a two-week quarantine.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has since admitted that the decision to impose the measures, the same as those applied to Koreans wishing to visit Japan, was a political decision.

Seoul’s contrasting approach to China appears to have played out in its favor, highlighting Seoul-Beijing relations while undermining Korean conservatives’ attack on the administration.

On Monday, it was revealed that China had approved exports of 5 million protective masks to Korea, in addition to the 1.1 million masks and 10,000 hazmat suits the Chinese government had already pledged to support Korea’s fight against the virus.

The export of masks from China is considered an unusual development. While Chinese authorities deny banning the export of masks or materials used in mask production, severe shortages in the Chinese market have prompted speculation that an unofficial ban is in place.

“(The Chinese authorities) explained that exports have been approved in light of the special relationship with Korea, and of (Korea’s) aid despite tight supply in China,” an official with Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on condition of anonymity. According to the official, China’s daily demand for masks is 600 million while its output is 160 million.

In addition to China’s central government, local governments including those of Shanghai and Weihai have sent masks to Korean cities affected by the outbreak.

Local and central Chinese governments are providing aid to Korea in return for aid they received from Korean government bodies earlier on in the outbreak.

In January, Seoul pledged aid worth $5 million to China, and has sent protective equipment including masks. Seoul has also refrained from banning travelers from all areas of China from entering Korea, choosing instead to impose an entry ban only on those coming from Hubei province.

Despite repeated calls for a sweeping ban from the conservative bloc and from some medical groups, the government has maintained that this would have little impact.

These decisions by the administration drew heavy fire from the country’s conservative bloc, which accused Moon of having ulterior motives and of pushing pro-China policies at the cost of damaging Seoul’s traditional alliances.

In addition, false accusations have circulated that Seoul has shipped masks to China in the tens of thousands, or that several hundred million masks were privately exported to China because Seoul’s export restrictions came too late.

The conservatives have accused the administration of putting the lives of the Korean people at risk, and of ignoring experts’ views.

The refusal to impose a sweeping entry ban on travelers from all of China is at the center of conservatives’ attacks on the government response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Rep. Kim Jin-tae of the United Future Party has even claimed that Beijing has a hold on Moon.

Kang Yeon-jae, a lawyer competing for United Future Party candidacy in the upcoming general elections, has gone so far as to call Moon a “crony” of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

A number of conspiracy theories have also circulated, with one suggesting that Moon is withholding an entry ban on all areas of China due to Xi’s planned visit to Seoul.

By Choi He-suk (