Entry ban is criticized for being too little, too late

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Entry ban is criticized for being too little, too late

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Chinese tourists pull carts loaded with boxes of face masks toward a check-in counter at Incheon International Airport on Monday. [YONHAP]

Korea will start turning away foreigners who visited China’s Hubei Province today to try to block the Wuhan coronavirus, but many feel the measure is too little, too late.

Main opposition lawmakers have been calling for an immediate travel ban on all Chinese visitors and foreigners who visited all parts of mainland China amid the spread of the virus that started in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei.

Hwang Kyo-ahn, chairman of the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), in a meeting of the party’s Supreme Council said, “All foreigners who visited China recently need to be completely barred,” and criticized the government for “delayed and insufficient measures.”

After careful deliberation by the Korean government, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun announced Sunday that all foreigners who have visited Hubei Province in the past 14 days will be banned from entry into Korea starting Tuesday. Visa-free entry to Jeju will also be temporarily suspended for the first time since the program enabling visitors to stay on the island for 30 days was implemented.

But Shim Jae-chul, the LKP floor leader, called out the government for taking a “passive” posture to please Beijing by only restricting foreigners who visited Hubei, when the virus has already spread across China.

“This cannot properly block the spread of the infection, nor alleviate the uneasiness of the people, and is a measure overly conscious of China,” Shim said.

A petition to the Blue House calling for the ban of all Chinese visitors surpassed 668,000 signatories as of Monday.

There are over 17,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in China and over 362 deaths, according to Chinese health authorities. The death toll from the coronavirus in China has now exceeded that of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, outbreak in 2002 and 2003, where 349 people died in mainland China.

So far, there are 15 confirmed cases of the virus in Korea.

The government said Sunday it is reviewing raising its travel alert to a “withdrawal recommendation” from the third-tier “restraint” for all Korean visitors to mainland China. Currently, it has a withdrawal recommendation, the second-highest in a four-tier travel warning system, for Hubei Province.

Seoul has been careful not to alienate Beijing with its measures, especially amid anticipation that the Chinese president could make his first visit to Seoul in over six years in the springtime.

In a meeting with Blue House aides Monday, President Moon Jae-in promised all-out pre-emptive efforts to contain the virus, saying, “China is the country we have the greatest human exchanges and most trade with, and difficulties for China are directly linked to difficulties for us.”

He added, “We need to work together to overcome the emergency situation and should not spare any support or cooperation that we can offer as a neighboring country.”

Moon stressed that travel restrictions were inevitable and that immigration procedures will be regulated more strictly “for the sake of the protection of Korean citizens,” a message to Beijing justifying Seoul’s travel restrictions.

Seoul followed other countries like Japan that implemented similar travel bans on foreigners who recently visited Hubei, while countries like the United States barred all foreign nationals who visited China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has responded negatively to the U.S. travel restrictions - saying it “set a bad example.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been expected to make a trip to Korea during the first half of the year. Seoul has looked forward to the visit as an opportunity to improve bilateral relations following the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, system to Korea, which angered Beijing, and also tackle North Korea denuclearization issues.

Xi has yet to reciprocate a visit to Beijing by President Moon in December 2017 and last visited Seoul in July 2014 under the Park Geun-hye administration.

In a letter to Xi at the end of last month, Moon pledged support to help China combat the coronavirus. The two leaders last held a bilateral summit in Beijing in December ahead of a trilateral meeting with Japan in Chengdu, China.

Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha dismissed concerns that the travel restrictions could lead to diplomatic friction with China.

“We are communicating very well [with China] on issues including the return of our overseas nationals,” said Kang in a joint press conference on Sunday. “It would be incorrect to say that there is any diplomatic friction.”

Chinese authorities delayed permits until the last minute for two chartered flights to bring back Koreans from Wuhan Thursday leading to speculation of diplomatic problems between the two countries. Eventually, China allowed one Korean Air chartered flight to airlift the evacuees later that evening and a second on Friday.

Korea eventually evacuated a total of 701 people from Wuhan, who are undergoing a 14-day isolation period in two public facilities in the Chungcheong region.

However, there are still over 120 Korean nationals in Wuhan and the Hubei region. Many stayed behind because they had Chinese family members they could not leave behind. Only Koreans were allowed to return on the chartered flights. These Koreans have said they are in need of basic supplies including masks, sterilizers and baby formula.

The Korean Foreign Ministry said that it will not evacuate the remaining staff members from its Consulate General in Wuhan, where eight of some 14 staffers still remain to help support the remaining Koreans in the region.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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