A modest proposalSevere acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) started in southern China in November 2002 and quickly spread to Hong Kong, to other Asian nations and even the West. People lived in fear of contracting the contagious disease until the outbreak was fully contained the following summer. Foreign envoys and expatriates in Beijing were advised by their home countries to leave China for a while.
But few Koreans withdrew, according to a memoir by then-Korean ambassador to Beijing Kim Ha-joong. Instead, Korean residents formed an emergency team of their own and collected donations to help Chinese people. President Roh Moo-hyun was the first head of state to visit China after the SARS outbreak when he arrived in Beijing in early July 2003. Aides advised against the visit and Beijing said it would understand if he did not come. But Roh pushed ahead to show his commitment to a relationship with China that had significantly improved during his term.
The aftermath of a monstrous earthquake and tsunami that struck the eastern coastal region of Japan in March 2011 was truly devastating. A nuclear plant faced a meltdown. Foreigners in Tokyo hurriedly packed up and got out.
But an emergency rescue team from Korea was one of the first foreign groups to arrive on the scene. Korean companies sent aid and supplies. Samsung, LG and Posco all dispatched medical and rescue teams as well as donations and supplies. Koreans set aside their long-standing resentment of the Japanese and chipped in to help them, amassing a record amount of charitable donations. Then-Japanese ambassador to Seoul Masatoshi Muto said he was touched by the concern of the Korean people.
The situation has been reversed in June 2015. The relatively obscure Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, has broken out in Korea and rapidly spread. The symptoms are known to be less harmful than with SARS and the virus is harder to transmit. The contagion is hardly a threat compared to a tsunami or nuclear power plant disaster.
Yet Koreans are bombarded with criticism from people in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. Koreans have been labeled as insensitive and ignorant for letting an infected person travel to Hong Kong and China. We can understand a panicky attitude from the masses. But action on the government level is different. Hong Kong health authorities prohibited any medical exchanges with Korea. Beijing cancelled an exchange program between Korean and Chinese journalists and alerted the participants just a day before the event.
There is no talk of helping Korea or sending medical aid from Japan or China. Of course, we cannot expect such a display of benevolence from Japan, which dumped over 10,000 tons of nuclear contaminated water into the sea it shares with Korea without any advance notice after the Fukushima power plant disaster. Tokyo took Seoul to the World Trade Organization for banning fish imports from Fukushima. It singled out Korea even though Taiwan and China had similar bans.
Generosity should not expect reciprocation. But we cannot help but feel betrayed. We can only take comfort in the fact that Koreans proved to be more humane than the Chinese and Japanese. We have been criticizing ourselves for the slack quarantine response and poor public awareness about communicable diseases. But there is no reason we should let a disease put us down.
In fact, the outbreak is a good chance to make us more alert to public health issues. At the same time, it could be a windfall to mend ties on the foreign front, especially for Korea-Japan ties that deteriorated since right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office and pursued a campaign to reinterpret past aggressions and build Japanese military power.
If Abe visits Korea at a time of crisis, he could help change the mood between the two countries. June 22 will mark a half century since the two states forged diplomatic ties. There is no need for formalities or a detailed agenda. He could just stop by to express goodwill to a neighboring country in distress. President Park Geun-hye, who put off a state visit to Washington because of the MERS crisis, would not be able to refuse such a gesture. Abe has nothing to lose. He would show that he has done his best to mend ties with Seoul.
Most Koreans distrust Abe. He talks of peace and harmony but denies that the comfort women were forced into sexual slavery, pays visits to the Yasukuni shrine and reiterates Japan’s claim over Dokdo whenever he can. Koreans could see Abe in a different light if he makes an unexpected visit. This could be the best and last chance for Abe to make amends with the Korean people.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 11, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yi Jung-jae