Too much delicacyThe Moon Jae-in administration announced Sunday that all foreigners who have visited Hubei Province in China in the last two weeks cannot enter Korea from 12 a.m. Tuesday. Visa-free visits to Jeju Island are also suspended. The government took those actions to respond to the increase in the number of Koreans infected with the coronavirus from Wuhan to 15. Given the gravity of the situation, the government’s decision seems unavoidable.
But the problem is that the Moon administration has been reacting to the spread of the virus without urgency, fueling fear among the public. The government took its actions belatedly, after Jeju Gov. Won Hee-ryong asked for a temporary ban on Chinese people entering the country after a Chinese tourist was found to be infected with the virus. On Jan. 26, the Korea Medical Association recommended the government impose an all-out ban on Chinese visitors to avoid the worst-possible case. Why was the government dragging its feet on the issue?
The government was negative about banning foreigners from entering Korea based on the World Health Organization’s advice that foreign governments should not limit their people’s trips to China for trade and other purposes. The Moon administration came under attack for bending over backwards not to offend China. According to Chinese authorities, as many as 24 countries have banned entry of foreigners who visited China, including Hubei Province, along with limitations on their visas and bans on flights to China. Two days before the decision by Seoul, Tokyo denied entry of all foreigners who had stayed in Hubei for the last two weeks, and Washington expanded its ban to all parts of China.
It is unclear whether our government’s ban on travelers to Hubei will be enough. Wuhan, the epicenter of the lethal virus, has a population of 11 million. As 70,000 Chinese students are studying in Korea, they are returning after spending time with their relatives through the Lunar New Year holidays in China.
In such volatile circumstances, new Chinese Ambassador to Korea Xing Haiming made clear his opposition to Seoul’s ban on entry of foreigners even before Seoul announced it. Korea has a sovereign right to protect its own people in times of emergency. Given China’s position as our largest trade partner, our government needs to approach the issue delicately so as not to spike unnecessary concerns about xenophobia. It is time for the government to handle the situation prudently — and effectively.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 3, Page 30