A tricky visit
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
For the ruling Democratic Party and the Moon Jae-in administration, a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping is an extremely fortuitous event for the upcoming general election. It will be a card to pay against the enemy, because opposition politicians have no justification to condemn the event, which will help end the diplomatic chill that settled in with the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system in Korea. If Xi’s visit can help thaw the frozen bilateral tie between Korea and China — and if Beijing lifts its bans on Korea’s industrial and cultural products, including group tours to Korea — the Moon administration will be able to celebrate a great accomplishment.
But an unexpected wrench has been thrown into that political engine — the outbreak of a new coronavirus in Wuhan. The government is expected to push forward its plan to invite Xi, despite the health crisis. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Sunday that Seoul will try to continue to push forward a diplomatic schedule with Beijing without any disruption.
But let’s put ourselves in China’s place. How can its leader leave the country when dozens of people die every day? The Chinese government said the outbreak will peak between Feb. 7 to 10 and then abate. The Korean government wants to believe that. But expert opinion says otherwise. Pandemic experts in Hong Kong said the outbreak will peak in April and May and calm down in June and July. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) — which was less contagious than the Wuhan coronavirus — continued for nine months after the first patient was reported in November 2002. Taking into account that precedent, it is unreasonable to expect Xi to travel outside his country in March.
And yet, the government seems to be doing its best to prepare for Xi’s visit in March. On Jan. 27, Moon issued a message to the nation saying that “the public must trust the government and should not have excessive uneasiness.” He urged the people not to panic.
The next day, the Blue House demanded the media use the term “new coronavirus outbreak” instead of identifying it as coming out of Wuhan, although the foreign media normally does.
Starting Jan. 31, the United States banned all foreigners who visited China within two weeks from entering the country. Japan also blocked entry of travelers with a history of staying in Hubei Province starting Saturday. Korea adopted the same measure as Japan a day later.
Even if Xi comes to Korea in March, it is not good timing. Anti-China sentiment will likely peak around that time. Xi’s trip to Korea is an important event that can be used as an opportunity to facilitate reconciliation between Seoul and Beijing. As Korea’s suffering continues as a result of the outbreak in China, however, it is possible that anti-China demonstrations will take place. If that happens, it will throw cold water on the rapprochement. Furthermore, China will likely demand a large gift in return for Xi’s visit to Korea in March. In this case, the administration will face criticisms for its diplomacy of self-effacement.
Although the outbreak is a tragedy, it can be an opportunity. For example, it is the moment to make the best use out of sanctions on North Korea to resolve the nuclear crisis. The outbreak is choking the Kim Jong-un regime as North Korea was forced to shut its borders with China. We should use the outbreak as an opportunity to pressure the North.
There is an old saying that those who follow heaven’s law will survive, and those who go against it will perish. The administration courts disaster if it blindly pushes for a diplomatic event for domestic political gains.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 4, Page 30