Seoul asks Washington to exercise restraint

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Seoul asks Washington to exercise restraint

Seoul asked Washington to refrain from excessive measures after the U.S. State Department raised its travel advisory for South Korea by another level Wednesday, urging Americans to “reconsider” visiting the country as it struggles with the coronavirus outbreak.

This advisory upgrade came despite U.S. President Donald Trump saying in a press briefing earlier Wednesday that now is not the “right time” to restrict travel to and from South Korea.

The U.S. State Department raised its travel alert to Level 3 on a four-tier scale and warned that people suspected to have the coronavirus “may face travel delays, quarantine and extremely expensive medical costs” if they visit South Korea. Last Saturday, the State Department raised its travel alert for South Korea from Level 1’s “normal precautions” to Level 2, which urges the exercise of “increased caution.”

China, where the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, in December, has been at Level 4 since the beginning of this month, which advises Americans not to travel there.

South Korea has seen a spike in its number of confirmed coronavirus cases to over 1,700 as of Thursday, mostly concentrated in Daegu and Cheongdo County in North Gyeongsang, and health authorities are tracking and testing potential infections linked to a minor Christian sect, the Shincheonji church.

The State Department on Wednesday noted that the South Korean government has upgraded its response level to “grave,” its highest level.

On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) raised its travel alert for South Korea to its highest level, Level 3, urging people to avoid nonessential visits to the country.

However, when asked if he is considering restricting travel to and from South Korea, Italy and other countries affected by the virus, Trump replied during a press conference at the White House, “At a right time we may do it. Right now it’s not the right time.”

Trump cited a Johns Hopkins University study that ranked countries best prepared for an epidemic and said that the United States “is rated No. 1.” He mentioned other countries on the list including Britain, the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Denmark - and South Korea.

In remarks to CDC officials warning of community spread of the virus in the United States, Trump assessed that “the risk to the American people remains very low.” Trump put U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in charge of America’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The CDC as of Wednesday reported some 60 coronavirus cases in the United States, a majority of whom were passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama, Japan. It also reported the first possible “community transmission” of the virus in California. There are over 82,000 confirmed coronavirus cases globally, and over 2,800 deaths, most of them in China.

South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young in a phone conversation Thursday with Stephen Biegun, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, asked Washington to “refrain from taking excessive measures” that could unnecessarily dampen bilateral exchanges.

Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement said that Cho briefed Biegun on the South Korean government’s efforts to combat the spread of the virus, officially called Covid-19, through the “swift and transparent dissemination of information” along with an effective scientific methodology to try to contain it. The two sides agreed to continue to closely communicate and coordinate, it added.

Lee Do-hoon, Seoul’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, also spoke over the phone earlier on the same day with Biegun upon a U.S. request, on continued efforts toward North Korean denuclearization despite a standstill in negotiations, especially as Pyongyang has closed off its borders amid the virus scare.

As of Thursday, the Foreign Ministry listed 22 countries or territories that have imposed some form of entry ban on visitors from South Korea. The latest countries on the list are the Philippines and Fiji, which banned all foreign visitors who had been in Daegu or Cheongdo.

The Maldives, Mongolia and the Seychelles barred all travelers who have visited South Korea in the past 14 days.

The ministry also listed five Chinese provinces as having bolstered travel restrictions on South Korea - Shandong, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang and Fujian - with passengers coming from South Korea generally having to undergo 14 days of quarantine in a designated hotel or at home.

Some 20 other countries or territories have tightened travel restrictions on visitors from South Korea such as requiring some form of quarantine or medical checks.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Wednesday warned countries against “excessive” travel measures on South Koreans.

She cited instances of Chinese areas enforcing unannounced quarantines of passengers from South Korea earlier this week, including Weihai in Shandong Province, and told reporters in Berlin that Seoul “responded with considerable restraint regarding China” and urged Beijing to reciprocate such restraint.

On Feb. 4, South Korea barred the entry of foreigners who had been in Hubei Province, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, in the 14 days before entering South Korea despite many calls for the blocking of all Chinese travelers.

At that time, Chinese Ambassador to Seoul Xing Haiming warned countries against measures that “unnecessarily interfere” with international trade and travel and urged them to “make a scientific decision” in a press conference.

Kang held a phone conversation with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi Wednesday night in the middle of a London trip, asking China to avoid such excessive restrictions on South Korean visitors.

Her ministry said in a statement that Kang expressed concern that “many regions in China are implementing excessive controls, including quarantines,” on South Korean visitors and requested that the Chinese central government “based on these facts take further interest to ensure that excessive measures are not taken.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry in a statement Thursday said Wang told Kang that China “will always remember with appreciation the strong support” South Korea has provided in its fight against the epidemic. He added that the two sides should “establish new exchange mechanisms or enhance existing ones between their diplomatic, health and disease control authorities” to collaborate on controlling the epidemic.

Wang also noted that the “epidemic will have an impact on bilateral exchanges and economic and trade cooperation” and that the two sides need to work together to minimize that impact and keep supply chains between the two countries stable. The statement did not make specific mention of the travel restrictions on South Koreans.

When asked by a reporter whether Chinese provinces were being too tough on travelers from South Korea and Japan, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian replied in a press briefing Wednesday, “As long as those measures are science-based, professional and appropriate, I think people will understand.”

Zhao added, “China is ready to work with [South Korea] and Japan to conduct joint prevention and control, enhance relevant measures at border entry and reduce unnecessary travels.”

China’s Global Times in an English-language opinion piece published Wednesday titled “China’s quarantine moves need understanding,” referred to Foreign Minister Kang’s description of the 14-day quarantine on travelers from South Korea coming into Weihai as being excessive.

It said that the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “empathy” but that as a media outlet, it proposed that all places in China “should regard people’s security as the top priority and quarantine all personnel from countries seriously affected by the coronavirus epidemic.”

“This is not a diplomatic issue, but epidemic prevention,” it added. China accepting people from South Korea and Japan, according to this piece, “could help them easily break through China’s prevention and control network.”

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

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