Categorized | China, slider, South Korea

Coronavirus Countermeasures Under Domestic Scrutiny

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • As of February 7, South Korea reported 23 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections and medical teams are checking 1,234 suspected cases. In response, the government is ramping up countermeasures, including temporarily closing schools.
  • South Korea enforced an entry ban on non-Korean travelers who have been to China’s Hubei province in the past 14 days.
  • China’s ambassador to South Korea urged countries to follow World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations and avoid “unnecessary interference with international travel and trade.”
  • On January 30, President Moon warned against consuming fake news about coronavirus and underscored that the creation of fake news about an urgent national crisis is a serious crime.
  • On January 27, officials from the Blue House released guidance that called for the press to refer to the epidemic as “Novel Coronavirus” instead of “Wuhan virus.”

Implications: Domestic perceptions of South Korea’s relative position vis-a-vis its neighbors affect the public’s support for policies on transnational issues, like disease control. As the Moon Jae-in administration implements measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, it must simultaneously address internal criticism that efforts have been restrained to appease China. Building on existing views that Korean liberal parties are pro-Beijing, critics speculate whether the government is attempting to appease Beijing with its cautious approach to expanding the entry ban for foreigners who have recently visited China despite the public’s concerns. Efforts to tackle anti-Chinese sentiment are also under scrutiny. For instance, the government explained that they are avoiding the use of the term “Wuhan virus” based on the WHO’s recommendation. However, some in the media have characterized this measure as a double standard, pointing out that the government has never regulated the use of terms like “Japanese encephalitis” or “U.S. flu.” Similarly, many critics suspect that the government’s unusually aggressive posture on fake news about the virus is to minimize friction with Beijing.

Context: President Moon has been working to improve relations with China after ties hit a nadir over Seoul’s decision to deploy a U.S. anti-ballistic missile battery in South Korea. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s possible visit to South Korea in the first half of 2020 is viewed as an opportunity for President Moon to bolster diplomatic ties with the country’s largest trading partner. In this context, the ROK government is likely aware of China’s sensitivity towards the treatment of its nationals since the outbreak of the coronavirus. For instance, Beijing has been critical of the U.S. government’s decision to ban the entry of foreign nationals who have recently traveled to China.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from flickr user CiaoHo

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