Slow off the mark
The author is an editorial writer of JoongAng Ilbo.
President Roh Moo-hyun consulted with his ambassador to Beijing about his planned state visit to China during the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that resulted in 774 deaths after the virus spread from southern China in November 2002.
He asked when he should make the visit, which had already been put off once.
Kim Ha-joong, ambassador to China, advised him to come in early July as planned.
The anxious president reminded him that it was already late May. Kim answered that the outbreak would settle down by the end of June.
“How can you be so sure?” the president inquired.
“I am the Chinese expert. Please have faith in your ambassador,” he answered.
This conversation between the two men was included in “Oral History: South Korean Diplomacy and Diplomats” recently published by the Korean National Diplomatic Academy. Kim was called by the president when he returned home for the annual meeting of foreign envoys.
The president’s staff actually advised Kim not to bring up the issue of the state visit with the SARS outbreak at its peak. Roh raised the issue first and Kim gave his honest opinion.
Kim said he believed in Beijing’s capacity to control the situation by June, given the sincerity of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and latest developments in the epidemic. He had hoped to achieve Roh’s state visit in the first year President Hu Jintao came into power and also use the epidemic momentum to strengthen bilateral ties.
Roh chose to go with Kim’s intuition rather than taking advice from his secretaries. He proceeded with the four-day visit from July 7. The plan was notified to the Korean mission in China on June 4.
The Blue House and Foreign Ministry were a bit nervous as the date approached. But dramatic developments took place. By June 24, a travel ban to Beijing was lifted. On July 5 — just two days before Roh was to leave for Beijing — the World Health Organization announced SARS had been completely combated.
Roh was welcomed as the first foreign head of state to visit the country in the aftermath of the epidemic. The two states agreed to elevate their bilateral relationship to the level of “comprehensive cooperative partners” and kept up the amicable ties established by Roh’s predecessor Kim Dae-jung.
Kim, who set the record as the longest South Korean envoy to China — serving from October 2001 to March 2008 — recollected that he had learned how the Chinese government and people thought of South Korea through the SARS event. The epidemic had helped upgrade the bilateral relationship, he added.
The Moon Jae-in staff, Foreign Ministry and mission in Beijing have responded poorly to the new epidemic in China compared to the liberal government of 17 years ago.
When reporters asked how South Korea had coped during the SARS outbreak on Jan. 23, Jang Ha-sung, ambassador to China, shrugged the question off, saying he could not know how things went in 2003.
Seoul authorities stumbled in the evacuation operation for its citizens in Wuhan, the epicenter of the new coronavirus. Noh Young-min, chief of staff for President Moon Jae-in, who was his first ambassador to China, and current envoy to Beijing made little contribution. Seoul claimed to be pro-Beijing, but there was no expert on China during crisis times.
Seoul also failed to respond quickly to developments in China to minimize the damage in Korea. President Xi Jinping on Jan. 20 ordered the Communist Party and government to do all it could to combat the new virus. On the same day, health authorities in Seoul identified the first case of a coronavirus infection. President Moon on that day welcomed new recruits to the Sejong administrative complex and idly lectured on work-personal life balance.
Xi called a politburo committee meeting during the Lunar New Year and declared a war on the infectious disease. On the following day, Moon told the public to have trust in the government and not to over-react. Then two days later, Moon ordered the government to do as much as it could to prevent the spread. A virus that does not know right from left in ideology has exposed the government’s capabilities.
In the film “The Man Standing Next,” President Park Chung Hee’s right-hand man and eventual assassin Kim Jae-gyu asks his boss why he carried out the coup that brought him to power. We ask the government why it spearheaded the candlelight vigil that ousted the former president. What has it learned from conservative administrations guilty of so-called past ills? Revolutions are not supposed to be about holding onto power at the cost of the well-being of the people.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 3, Page 30