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Flu diplomacy

Feb 07,2020
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President Moon Jae-in meets Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit at the Westin Osaka on June 27, 2019, on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan. [KANG JUNG-HYUN]
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Yi Jung-jae
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Last week, I visited California. The Wuhan coronavirus had alarmed the world. A patient was diagnosed with it in nearby Santa Clara. He had visited Wuhan, China, and Shanghai. He went out twice to visit a hospital and isolated himself out of worries that he would infect others if he had the flu. He became the seventh patient in the United States. Santa Clara’s County Health Officer, Sara Cody, appeared on television and said the possibility that the disease spread was small as he contacted a very limited number of people. That day, the U.S. government declared a state of emergency and banned the entry of foreign nationals who visited China. The United States is the first major country to enforce such a ban.

This is the two-faces of the United States. The patient in Santa Clara showed mature citizenship and American values. In contrast, the U.S. government was purely America First. China criticized the United States for its action against the Wuhan virus when thousands die from the flu in the United States every year.

The real problem with the outbreak is the panic. Fear exposes the basest side of people. While there are some tearful heroic stories going around, most are about selfishness and survival. Stocking up on masks is only a small part. Fear often amplifies discord among neighbors and even countries. Korea has to be sensitive as China’s neighbor.

After the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) hit China in November 2002, Asia was in panic until the following July. Countries around the world evacuated their diplomats and businessmen. But Korea was different. According to “God’s Ambassador,” written by onetime Korean Ambassador to China Kim Ha-joong, Korean people did not evacuate. They formed a committee to respond to SARS, and raised and delivered funds to China. President Roh Moo-hyun was the first foreign leader to visit China after the SARS outbreak. His staff tried to dissuade him, and Beijing said it would understand if he canceled the visit. But Roh went on with the visit. The honeymoon with China during the Roh administration deepened thanks to the “politics of the flu.”

But the politics of the flu can get ugly sometimes. In June 2015, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) landed in Korea. People in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China started Korea-bashing online. They criticized a Korean who had contracted MERS and flown into Hong Kong as being selfish, They attacked Korea for “exporting MERS.” The Hong Kong quarantine authorities even suspended a medical staff exchange. The State Council of China indefinitely postponed Korea-China journalist exchanges. It unilaterally notified Korea of its decision to ban or postpone the exchanges one day before the event because of MERS. I never heard of China raising funds, sending medical staff or helping Korea at the time.

The situation is now reversed. But the Moon Jae-in administration is facing backlash. As it is trying to read China’s mind, its approval rating keeps falling. Here, an inverse idea is needed. We should learn from the past. President Moon can visit China for a summit. Xi Jinping’s visit to Korea before April is not realistic any more. If Korea adheres to that schedule, there can be more to lose than gain.

Meanwhile, the idea of President Moon visiting China has many benefits. He can subdue the criticism that he wants to invite Xi to Korea for political gains ahead of the April 15 general elections. Moon also can set an example and impress the Chinese people. He can prove his sincerity when he said, “China’s suffering is our suffering.” That would be far more effective than sending 3 million masks. It can also help quiet some people complaining that masks are sent to China when there is a shortage here.

It should not be a pretense. Sincerity is important. It would be nice if Moon hugs a patient who got over the Wuhan flu, together with the first lady. Having a meal with Chinese people wearing masks would also work. There will be no problem if he washes his hands well. It can be awkward if he wears a mask and doesn’t shake hands as he did when he met with Korean medical staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 6, Page 30