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(6th LD) FM Kang calls in Japanese ambassador to protest new entry restrictions

All News 17:44 March 06, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 10-11; UPDATES tally in last para)
By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, March 6 (Yonhap) -- Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Friday called in Japan's ambassador and lodged a strong protest over Tokyo's decision to impose new entry restrictions for South Koreans over coronavirus fears, calling the measures "unfriendly" and "unscientific" and warning of a tit-for-tat response.

It is unusual for the minister to hold such a meeting with a foreign envoy to file a complaint, illustrating the seriousness South Korea attaches to the issue. Initially, First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young was to meet Japanese Ambassador Koji Tomita.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (R) talks with Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Koji Tomita at the foreign ministry in Seoul on March 6, 2020. (Yonhap)

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (R) talks with Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Koji Tomita at the foreign ministry in Seoul on March 6, 2020. (Yonhap)

Tokyo has announced that from Monday through the end of this month, visitors from South Korea and China will be asked to stay at designated facilities for two weeks and refrain from using public transportation. It also plans to suspend the 90-day visa-free entry program for South Koreans on Monday.

Japan has already banned the entry of people who have visited the southeastern city of Daegu and adjacent Cheongdo County, where the bulk of the country's COVID-19 infections have taken place.

"I express deep regrets over the fact that the Japanese government has taken such unreasonable steps although our government has been strictly controlling and managing the COVID-19 through an excellent quarantine system recognized by the world," Kang said.

"We cannot help but deplore the measure that Japan has pressed ahead without prior notification as well as sufficient consultations despite our repeated calls to refrain from additional measures," she added.

The minister raised doubts over the motivations behind Japan's latest restrictions, stressing that the measures came when South Korea's containment efforts are yielding progress.

"Japan's measures this time are not only unfriendly but also unscientific, and I strongly urge Japan to promptly retract them while facing the objective facts and situations," Kang said.

"I tell you that we cannot help but explore ways for necessary responses, including measures based on the principle of reciprocity, should Japan not withdraw them," she added.

The minister also stressed that Korea's "objective" data, including the high number of COVID-19 tests, underscores the country's "active and preemptive" quarantine efforts rather than any failure to contain the virus.

"Rather, our government is watching Japan's response to COVID-19 with concern," Kang was quoted by her ministry as saying.

Tomita said in response that he would relay Kang's remarks to the Japanese foreign ministry.

"As you might be well aware of the situation in Japan regarding the new coronavirus, the next one or two weeks is a critical juncture that could determine whether the virus outbreaks can end," he said.

Earlier in the day, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae also expressed "strong regrets" over Japan's measures, after it convened a standing committee session of the National Security Council (NSC).

At the session, NSC members decided to weigh "necessary measures based on the principle of reciprocity."

Seoul officials said that such measures could come before Japan's new restrictions go into effect on Monday.

In the morning, the foreign ministry issued a strongly-worded statement, voicing "extreme regret" and raising doubts over Japan's intentions behind the restrictive measures.

"Given that this measure came when signs of progress in our containment efforts appear to have emerged, we cannot help but doubt whether Japan has other intentions than its considerations of the quarantine aspect," the ministry said.

"While placing the top priority on the health and safety of our citizens, the government is weighing all possible measures (in response to Japan's measure)," it added.

Japan's latest restrictions angered South Korea in particular because Seoul has refrained from such extraordinary steps against Japanese nationals even at the onset of the outbreak on a virus-hit cruise ship off its coast.

Critics raised speculation that Tokyo might have decided to tighten restrictions on the entry of Koreans to help circumvent domestic criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's handling of the virus outbreaks.

As for the possible measures, observers said that Seoul could consider restricting the entry of people from Japan and halting the 90-day visa-free program for Japanese visitors.

But South Korea could face a dilemma, as critics argue it has not taken any tit-for-tat steps against the countries that have been enforcing entry bans or other forms of restrictions on Korean travelers.

Critics also claimed Seoul did not take any reciprocal action after Chinese provincial authorities quarantined some 860 South Koreans as precautions.

A Seoul official countered that South Korea has already taken a series of measures, including special entry procedures for arrivals from China at Incheon International Airport and other self-diagnosis applications for them.

"Things related to the quarantine of South Koreans have also been getting better after consultations with the Chinese provincial authorities," the official told reporters.

As of midnight, South Korea has reported 6,593 confirmed cases of the novel virus and 42 deaths. As of 3 p.m. Friday, 102 countries and territories planned to enforce or were imposing entry restrictions or stricter quarantine programs for people from South Korea.


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