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(News Focus) Public chagrin grows over China's virus quarantine measures against Korean visitors

Diplomacy 11:11 February 26, 2020

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Feb. 26 (Yonhap) -- Public chagrin is growing over some Chinese provincial authorities' forcible anti-coronavirus quarantine measures against South Koreans, fueling criticism of Seoul's cautious immigration controls and strengthening calls for broader entry bans on Chinese visitors.

Despite Seoul's entry ban limited only to China's central Hubei Province at the center of the new coronavirus outbreaks, Weihai in the eastern Shandong Province and other regions have enforced unannounced quarantine steps against visitors from South Korea.

The measures came after Seoul embraced Beijing's calls for a "scientific" decision in line with the World Health Organization's (WHO) recommendations against unnecessary travel restrictions and sent protective masks, goggles and other relief items to China in a show of unity in the fight against the virus outbreaks.

The containment move raised questions over Seoul's hitherto cautious approach in dealing with Chinese travelers in the midst of a recent spike in the number of COVID-19 infections in South Korea, which has risen to 1,146.

"China has been consistent in its claim that travel restrictions should be made based on scientific grounds and WHO recommendations, while decrying strict entry restrictions by the United States and other countries," Park Won-gon, professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said.

"Thus, provincial Chinese authorities' quarantine measures against Koreans are inconsistent with Beijing's stance. Given the Chinese governance structure, we know that the provincial authorities might not be able to make such decisions without consent from the central government or at least without its acquiescence," he added.

On Tuesday, the Weihai authorities put all 163 passengers, including 19 South Koreans, of a flight from Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, under quarantine in the first such Chinese measure against visitors from Korea.

The city of Shenyang in Liaoning Province also subjected air passengers from South Korea to coronavirus tests and reportedly placed them under a 14-day quarantine program at designated hotels or other locations.

The authorities in Nanjing in Jiangsu Province quarantined about 70 of the total 169 passengers aboard a flight from Incheon after three Chinese passengers had signs of fever. Among those in quarantine are 40 South Koreans.

Seoul's foreign ministry came under fire for what critics call a lukewarm response to such forcible quarantine steps.

A foreign ministry official told Yonhap that the ministry is providing consular support to those in quarantine, and that its missions are "in consultations" with the Chinese authorities over the quarantine issue.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha later criticized such forcible quarantine measures as "excessive," stressing Seoul has exercised "restraint" in its immigration control efforts.

"First of all, my judgment is that such measures are excessive," Kang told reporters after attending an international security conference in Berlin on Tuesday.

"There needs to be continued communication with China to ensure that China will also exert restraint and will not make excessive responses," she added.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Geneva on Feb. 24, 2020, in this photo provided by her ministry. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

The minister also pointed out that each country's immigration control decision based on its own judgment is not for a foreign country to interfere with.

"But such decisions should be made in consideration of the efforts that we have made domestically," Kang said. "Banning the entry of people just because they are from Korea is something we can never accept."

Provincial Chinese authorities' quarantine moves against Koreans drew the ire of South Koreans, particularly those who have clamored for the government to impose sweeping bans on the entry of Chinese visitors.

As of Wednesday morning, more than 761,830 Koreans have participated in an online public petition calling for an entry ban on Chinese visitors on the website of the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. Any petition that garners support from more than 200,000 people within a month requires an official response from Cheong Wa Dae.

"I feel so dismayed and frustrated at the measures by Chinese authorities," an office worker in Gimpo, west of Seoul, told Yonhap News Agency, declining to be named. "We have so far helped with the Chinese efforts to contain the spread of the virus, and now they are doing this to us."

Despite calls for expanded entry restrictions, Seoul has maintained a cautious approach at a time when it seeks stronger Chinese cooperation in persuading North Korea to return to dialogue and move forward the fraught process to lay the groundwork for a lasting peace on the peninsula.

South Korea has in particular been striving to arrange a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping in the first half of this year, apparently believing that his trip here would help create the momentum to advance the peace agenda.

"I was a bit frustrated to see that Chinese provincial authorities make such quarantine decisions without thinking too much about their political, diplomatic and geopolitical implications or ramifications, while South Korea should make such careful considerations," Won Su-hyung, an office worker in Ilsan, west of Seoul, said.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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