President does damage control

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President does damage control

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President Moon Jae-in, right, visits the National Medical Center in Jung District, central Seoul, on Tuesday, to discuss response measures to the outbreak of the coronavirus. [NEWS1]

President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday visited a hospital in Seoul where a patient with a confirmed case of coronavirus is being quarantined, received a briefing and ordered the government to act sternly and swiftly to fight the outbreak.

“The government should execute preemptive measures strongly and swiftly so that it might be evaluated as a little too excessive,” Moon said during his visit to the National Medical Center (NMC) in Jung District, central Seoul.

Moon visited the hospital from 10:30 a.m. for about 45 minutes. Before entering the facility, Moon received a briefing about the current situation from the NMC Director Jung Ki-hyeon. “We must take maximum measures to stop the [spread of] infection,” he said. “And we need to make transparent announcements to prevent the public from unnecessarily panicking.”

During the visit, Moon went to the hallway leading to the entrance of the quarantine wards, located on the 8th floor of the main building, where a man in his 50s, confirmed as the second patient in Korea, is being treated in isolation. The president did not meet the patient.

The visit to the hospital took place as Moon’s leadership is being tested by the outbreak. The Blue House has been facing criticism for its slackened approach toward the situation.

On Sunday, Moon issued a message to the nation and urged the people to not panic. “The central government and local autonomous governments are taking all necessary measures,” he said. “The people must trust the government and not have unnecessary anxiety.”

The message, issued on the same day the third patient was confirmed, faced a backlash. “The president’s message is unbelievably easygoing amid the outbreak,” said Liberty Korea Party (LKP) spokesperson Rep. Jun Hee-kyung. “The president’s lackadaisical attitude is causing the people’s uneasiness.”

Rep. Shim Jae-cheol, floor leader of the LKP, called Moon irresponsible on Monday. “When he was the chairman of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy [the predecessor of the ruling Democratic Party] during the Middle East respiratory syndrome [MERS] outbreak in 2015, he demanded then-President Park Geun-hye issue a public apology because the Blue House should have been in full control of the situation,” Shim said. “When he was the opposition leader, he was a sharp critic, but he is acting irresponsibly after he became the president.”

Shim also said over 410,000 people signed a petition on the Blue House’s website to ban the entry of Chinese travelers, but Health Minister Park Neung-hoo dismissed it. Park said Thursday that the ban will have more of a negative aftermath than a positive effect. As of Tuesday, over 500,000 people had signed the petition.

Following the criticism, Moon stepped up measures. He hosted a meeting with aides at the Blue House on Monday to discuss the outbreak and ordered a survey on all travelers from Wuhan, transparency in information and mobilization of the military if necessary.

The outbreak is also expected to put a serious damper on Moon’s efforts to restore ties with China. A presidential aide said Tuesday that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s planned visit to Korea will likely be postponed.

At the Korea-China summit in Beijing in December, Moon asked Xi to visit Korea during the first quarter of 2020. While the schedule is currently being discussed, speculation was high that Xi will visit Korea in March.

“As of now, many said Xi’s trip will be postponed,” a presidential source told the JoongAng Ilbo. “But that doesn’t completely end the possibility that he will visit Korea during the first half of this year.”

The Blue House has an ambition to use Xi’s trip as a turning point to restore bilateral relations that have been frozen since the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system in Korea in 2016. The administration also hoped that the ruling party would use the event to win votes in the April general election, if Xi agrees to lift the bans on group tours to Korea and Korean pop culture imports to China during his trip.

Concerns are growing inside the Blue House that the spread of the disease to Korea will actually hurt the ruling party in the April general elections.

When China experienced the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, President Roh Moo-hyun visited China in July that year, the first foreign leader to make a trip since the outbreak. It remains to be seen how Moon will act this time.

Rep. Lee In-young, floor leader of the ruling party, said Tuesday that Korea should help China. “True friends help each other during a hardship,” Lee said. “China is a friend that we have to help and live together with for a long time. We must refrain from acts that will encourage hatred between the people of the two countries. We need to extend our warm help to the Chinese people.”

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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