Moon looks for exemptions for local business travelersPresident Moon Jae-in ordered his diplomats Tuesday to talk to countries blocking Koreans from entering to find exceptions for business travelers, possibly through a new system of health certificates issued by the government.
Kang Min-seok, spokesman for the Blue House, said in a briefing that Moon ordered his aides to discuss such exemptions through diplomatic channels.
A total of 109 countries and territories have imposed entry bans or quarantines on people coming from Korea as of Tuesday, according to Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, three more than the previous day. Prolonged travel restrictions could harm Korean businesses.
Korean Foreign Ministry officials said diplomats are in discussion with over 20 key foreign trading partners to allow businesspeople exceptions to the travel bans with government-issued health documents proving they are virus-free.
The countries include Turkey, China, Vietnam, India, Kuwait and Qatar.
A senior Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday, “Traveling for tourism has decreased greatly, but there are people who unavoidably have to travel abroad for business reasons but are facing 14-day quarantines,” or being blocked from the countries altogether.
“We are working toward seeking understanding from such countries,” he added, pointing out the “mutual damages” that would result if factories and construction projects come to a halt due to travel restrictions.
A Blue House official told reporters Tuesday, “Our government respects the restriction measures of the relevant countries, but taking into consideration a positive evaluation of Korea’s quarantine capacity and the decrease in cases domestically, we look forward to their allowing exceptions for the entry of those on emergency work-related travel.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, 45 countries and territories have entry bans on people coming from Korea or parts most affected by the virus such as the southeastern city of Daegu and surrounding province of North Gyeongsang.
When asked about the special exemptions, Kim In-chul, spokesman of the Korean Foreign Ministry, said in a briefing Tuesday afternoon, “We are making multifaceted efforts to support the businesses of our people.”
Seoul’s diplomats are diverting efforts to prevent countries from implementing travel restrictions on Korea toward focusing on support for Koreans facing difficulties overseas and people with unavoidable travel needs.
The travel bans are especially tough on smaller businesses without overseas branches to oversee work until the travel bans and quarantine measures are lifted.
Over 1,688 Koreans were quarantined overseas as of Tuesday, according to the Foreign Ministry, including 1,234 in China and 397 in Vietnam. Over 2,900 Koreans have been released from quarantine.
There are some 21 Chinese cities and provinces implementing some form of quarantine on travelers coming from Korea, usually 14 days of self-quarantine at home or a hotel.
While new coronavirus infections have slowed down in Korea for now, there has been a spike in Covid-19 cases globally with more than 110,000 total cases and over 4,000 deaths.
Italy has emerged as the country with the most number of cases outside China with over 9,100 confirmed patients and more than 460 deaths as of Tuesday.
Korea on Monday raised its travel alert one notch to Level 2 in a four-tier system to more parts of Italy, advising people to refrain from visiting those areas. Last month, Korea issued a travel alert for areas of northern Italy, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto, and included the northwestern region of Piedmont and Marche in central Italy.
But Korea is not considering entry restrictions for travelers from Italy at the moment, according to Seoul officials.
The Korean government has been mulling evacuating its nationals from Iran, another heavily-affected country, on a chartered plane as early as this week.
In a press briefing for foreign media in Seoul Monday, Korea’s Second Vice Foreign Minister Lee Tae-ho said, “The consensus among public health professionals seems to be that travel bans are not effective in containing contagious illnesses and can make things worse, even, by fueling a sense of complacency.”
He added that the World Health Organization (WHO) says that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is “ineffective” and recommends that any travel measures “need to be proportionate to the public health risk” and be “reconsidered regularly.”
Lee noted that Seoul has followed such recommendations and has not introduced any entry bans except on people coming from Hubei Province, the epicenter of China’s coronavirus outbreak.
Despite public concern over the entry of people from other parts of China, the Korean government did not widen its entry ban beyond Hubei Province and its capital of Wuhan and instead implemented special entry procedures for Chinese visitors to better keep track of their whereabouts and health conditions while visiting Korea.
Korea and Japan suspended their mutual visa-waiver programs starting Monday, and travel between the two neighboring countries, which suffered a blow last year amid a spat over trade and historical issues, has all but been severed.
Seoul announced reciprocal restrictions on visitors from Japan after Tokyo on Thursday announced it would require two-week quarantines for visitors from Korea, among other restrictions. Travel between the two countries is virtually halted at least through the end of this month.
Four Japanese citizens tried to take a flight to Korea but were unable to board Monday because of the halt of the 90-day visa-free entry system, according to Seoul’s Ministry of Justice Tuesday.
Korean Vice Health Minister Kim Kang-lip in the press briefing Monday stressed that “most of the Covid-19 patients are from a single cluster in a single region” and have been linked with the Shincheonji religious sect.
The government concentrated efforts in identifying and isolating patients in the Daegu and North Gyeongsang area in a “short span of time” and has been conducting at least 10,000 diagnostic tests nationwide each day, he added.
China said it will send 1 million medical masks, 100,000 face masks and 10,000 pieces of protective gear to Korea through the Red Cross, stated the Korean Foreign Ministry on Monday. It added this was an opportunity to “strengthen government and civilian cooperation between the two countries.”
Korea has been facing a shortage of face masks since late February.
Chinese Ambassador to Seoul Xing Haiming made the offer on Friday in a meeting with Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gunn “to support the Korean government and people’s efforts to respond to Covid-19. Kim thanked Beijing’s top diplomat for China’s “warm support.”
The first batch of 80,000 face masks and some protective gear are scheduled to be delivered on Wednesday.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]