Opposition, public slam Moon’s response

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Opposition, public slam Moon’s response

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President Moon Jae-in, center, meets with service industry representatives on Friday to discuss measures to improve domestic consumption and economic sentiments hit by the new coronavirus outbreak. [YONHAP]

The Moon Jae-in administration is facing fierce criticism for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, as the public and opposition politicians increasingly demand an entry ban on travelers from China.

“The government must admit its failures in the initial responses, disinfection and quarantine measures and come up with a new plan,” Rep. Shim Jae-cheol of the United Future Party (UFP) said during the party’s urgent meeting to discuss the rapid surge of cases of the novel coronavirus in Korea. A total of 204 cases have been reported as of Friday, giving Korea the second-largest number of confirmed cases outside mainland China.

Shim said the government must raise the crisis management level to the highest stage and impose a ban on travelers from China, the epicenter of the deadly disease. “Since community-associated infections are confirmed, we need to raise the crisis level,” he said. “The government must stop pleasing China. It should make the people’s safety the top priority. An entry ban of travelers from China must be implemented as soon as possible.”

Shim’s remarks came as the public is increasingly demanding the entry ban after more and more countries around the world have taken such measure. A petition submitted to the Blue House through an internet bulletin board demanding an entry ban of Chinese nationals has gathered nearly 744,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon. The petition, filed on Jan. 23, demanded the Moon administration to act “pre-emptively” by stopping the entry of Chinese nationals. “Even North Korea banned Chinese people’s entry,” the petitioner said.

The Blue House made a pledge to respond to any petition that receives more than 200,000 signatures, however, as of Friday, no response has been made.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 41 countries from around the world have imposed some kind of entry ban on foreign travelers who recently visited or stayed in China, the latest of which was imposed by Russia on Thursday. It temporarily banned all Chinese nationals from entering the country. North Korea, a longtime ally of China, declared a state emergency on Jan. 22 and shut down its borders. All foreigners including Chinese nationals are banned from entering the country.

The United States has imposed an entry ban of all foreign travelers who have visited China except for Hong Kong and Macau.

As of now, South Korea has only banned the entry of foreign travelers who visited or stayed in Hubei Province, the epicenter of the deadly outbreak. The Korea Medical Association already recommended Tuesday that Korea step up measures to stop all travelers who have visited any region in China from entering the country.

Despite the growing demands for an entry ban, the government made clear on Friday it has no intention to impose such measure. “We should allow entry of all travelers from outside the country,” said Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo, head of the government’s central crisis management center, during a media briefing Friday morning. “It is not appropriate to impose a limit on a certain country and certain nationals.”

“We are seriously restricting Chinese nationals and foreigners entering Korea through China,” said Park. “Before the outbreak, about 20,000 people entered from China a day, but the number went down to 4,000. Among the 4,000, 1,000 are Korean nationals.”

Park also said more infections are attributed to Korean nationals who visited China, not foreign tourists from China.

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, in charge of immigration and customs services, also said Thursday that the ministry is proactively handling the situation. She assured strict immigration controls on foreign travelers and Chinese students during an interview with TBS’s “Kim Eo-jun’s News Factory.” She even said China is thankful for Korea’s handling of the situation and added that Chinese Ambassador to Korea Xing Haiming recently visited her to express special appreciation.

“The United States completely banned the entry of Chinese nationals and is using the situation politically before the presidential election,” Choo said. “But we are implementing quiet, yet pragmatic, objective and effective measures, and Xing was very grateful.”

UFP Rep. Shin Sang-jin, a medical doctor, said Friday that the government must take the situation more seriously. “I want to know why it is not escalating the crisis level,” said Shin.

Shin also condemned Moon for having made a premature assurance to the public. “The president recently said the outbreak will soon come to an end and the people should not be worried,” Shin said. “But his premature judgements actually hindered health authorities to act proactively. The president must listen to experts’ opinions, allow the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do its job and exert all efforts to fight the outbreak.”

Another UFP lawmaker Park In-sook, also a medical doctor, criticized Moon’s telephone talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Moon told Xi that he sees China’s hardship as our hardship,” she said. “And China’s hardship has actually turned into Korea’s hardship, because we now have the second most number of patients after China.”

Moon telephoned Xi on Thursday and held phone talks for 32 minutes. Calling China “the closest neighbor,” Moon expressed his condolences to the Chinese victims of the deadly outbreak and promised his support for China’s battle against the virus, according to presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok.

According to Kang, Xi expressed his appreciation for Moon’s support. The two leaders agreed to share their experiences in clinical treatment and strengthen cooperation between the quarantine authorities.

Moon and Xi also agreed that the two governments will continue to work to arrange Xi’s planned visit to Korea during the first half of this year.

Conspicuously missing in Kang’s briefing about the phone talks was any mention of a possible entry ban of travelers from China.

UFP Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn posted a message on his Facebook on Friday that the largest opposition party will actively support the government to end the outbreak and stabilize the people’s livelihoods. “The administration must not disregard the criticism of the opposition party as a political attack,” Hwang said. “It must act with live-or-die determination to stop the infections from spreading further.”

“We will actively support the government for Daegu and North Gyeongsang to restore their stability,” Hwang said. The two regions are the party’s political strongholds.

Other UFP politicians criticized Moon’s failure to understand the people’s snowballing fear of the pandemic. “Throughout yesterday, the people witnessed a president who lives in a world free of Wuhan pneumonia fear,” Lee Chang-su, spokesman of the UFP, said Friday, criticizing the president’s decision to host a luncheon at the Blue House on Thursday with Bong Joon-ho, director of the Oscar-winning movie “Parasite” and its cast and production staff. “Moon made not a single mention about the Korean patient who died from the infection, but he expressed condolences to the Chinese victims [when he talked to Xi]. Moon even expressed his appreciation toward China, which reluctantly allowed Korea’s airlifts of its people.”

“Was it so important for him, even when Korea recorded its first death, to exchange greetings with Xi?” he asked. “The people have no one to trust.”

Meanwhile, Moon met with service industry leaders directly hit by the outbreak and listened to their requests to improve domestic consumption. Sixteen representatives from street shop, restaurant, entertainment, tourism, hotel and air industries attended the meeting and asked for tax cuts, financial and employment subsidies and assistance for disinfection measures.

Earlier in the morning, Moon received a briefing from Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun about the rapid surge of the cases. Chung told Moon that the government will maintain the current alertness status - the second-highest of the four levels - because Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore are all using the same response levels, although they have more infections per population.

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

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