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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on April 10)

All News 07:10 April 10, 2020

Halting visa-free entry
Restrictive measure is based on reciprocity

The government has decided to temporarily suspend visa-free entry and visa waiver programs with 90 countries imposing entry bans or restrictions on South Koreans as part of its efforts to stem the spread of the new coronavirus pandemic. This measure, which will take effect next Monday, is not an outright entry ban on foreign travelers. Yet it is based on reciprocity to reduce imported infection cases by discouraging foreigners from making nonessential visits to Korea.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice jointly announced that the restrictive measure will be applied to 90 countries -- 34 subject to the suspension of a visa-free entry program and 56 affected by the halted visa-waiver program. Those countries include Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada, Brazil and Chile. Aside from the suspension, all 90-day visas issued to foreigners before April 5 will become invalid.

However, the U.S. is not affected by the measures because it has yet to place any entry restrictions on South Koreans. Neither will be China as it has no visa-free agreement with Korea. But an estimated 1.9 million Chinese nationals will see their 90-day visa invalidated, making it harder for them to make short-term visits to Korea.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun called for the restrictive measures against foreigners whose visits are not essential and urgent. It is somewhat belated, but inevitable to block the influx of virus carriers from abroad, especially when roughly 30 percent to 40 percent of new infections are imported cases.

However, Chung made it clear that the country will maintain its policy of openness in coping with the public health crisis. He argued that the suspension of visa-free and visa-waiver programs was necessary to address growing fears about an increasing number of foreign arrivals bringing the virus into Korea. On Wednesday alone, 24 of 53 new infections were among travelers from overseas. And 861 of the total 10,423 confirmed cases here have so far originated in other countries.

The country -- a small-scale open economy -- has so far imposed no entry ban on travelers from other countries, except for those from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where COVID-19 originated last December. However, 151 countries and territories are imposing a total or partial entry ban on travelers from South Korea. Thus, there has been a growing call for the government to take the same measure against travelers from those countries.

South Korea can no longer maintain its policy of no restrictions on foreign arrivals as the pandemic continues to spread rapidly in Europe and the U.S. The country has enforced a 14-day quarantine on travelers from abroad since April 1. But this step has strained the country's quarantine capacity with the virus testing cost soaring as the number of travelers in isolation has jumped to 43,931, accounting for 84.7 percent of all quarantined people.

The potential influx of the virus from abroad could trigger a second wave of infections here. The Moon Jae-in administration should not hesitate to take more timely and appropriate measures to better protect Koreans from the pandemic.

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