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China, of all places, gets tough on Koreans

Feb 29,2020
More than 50 countries have implemented travel bans or quarantine measures on travelers coming from South Korea as of Friday amid fear of the global spread of the new coronavirus.

In an odd turn of events, they include China, the origin of the disease.

Korean travelers face particular uncertainties flying into China as provinces and cities implement unexpected quarantines. Some Koreans residing there are being shunned by neighbors in apartment complexes.

In a matter of two days, Korea saw its number of coronavirus cases double to over 2,300 as of Friday. The spike comes as health authorities conduct extensive testing on members of a minor Christian sect, Shincheonji, who make up the majority of new cases, which are mostly in the Daegu and North Gyeongsang area.

In contrast, Chinese figures are showing a decrease in its cases, with 327 new cases and 44 new deaths announced as of Friday morning.

Despite the fact that the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, China has been tightening its border controls and quarantine measures against travelers coming from Korea since the beginning of the week.

On Thursday, 31 Koreans were placed under self-quarantine after flying into Nanjing in China’s eastern Jiangsu Province from Incheon International Airport on an Asiana Air flight.

After a Chinese passenger on the flight complained of a sore throat, 34 travelers who sat near that person were put under quarantine upon arrival. The remaining passengers, including the 31 Koreans, were told to undergo 14 days of self-quarantine at their homes.

Many of the Koreans worked for an affiliate company of the LG Group and live in the same apartment complex in central Nanjing.

But other residents of that apartment complex blocked the entry of the Koreans when they tried to go home, according to the Korean consulate in Shanghai. They had to lodge at a nearby hotel.

This was not the first time Koreans residing in China were blocked from apartment complexes, with similar incidents having been reported in Suzhou, a city near Shanghai, and Wangjing, the Korean town subdistrict of Beijing this past week.

Over 300 Koreans are being quarantined in China, but the exact number is difficult to pin down because some residents are undergoing self-quarantine in their homes.

According to the Korean Foreign Ministry, 27 countries or territories have implemented some form of entry bans on travelers from Korea as of Friday.

Some countries such as Japan, Singapore and Vietnam are barring the entry of travelers who have visited the Daegu and North Gyeongsang area in the past 14 days.

Others, including the latest additions - Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Jamaica - have travel bans on all foreign travelers coming from Korea.

Some 25 others have bolstered travel restrictions on Korea. There have also been nine cases of flight bans, according to a ministry official.

The ministry has separately listed nine Chinese provinces or cities as having bolstered quarantine measures for people traveling from South Korea: the provinces of Shandong, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Fujian, Shaanxi and Sichuan, as well as Shanghai, the country’s business center.

Passengers coming from South Korea generally can expect to undergo 14 days of quarantine in a designated hotel or at home.

Depending on the Chinese province, some are only placing those coming from Daegu and North Gyeongsang, or those who have symptoms upon arrival, under quarantine. Shanghai is placing all passengers who have been in Daegu and North Gyeongsang under a 14-day quarantine either at home or in a hotel.

“We are raising such issues to the governments of the pertinent countries and emphasizing that unfair measures cannot be taken against Korean nationals,” a Foreign Ministry official said Friday when asked about the treatment of Koreans overseas.

“As Koreans living in China can feel the impact directly, our embassies and consulates are also watching the situation alertly. We have also requested cooperation from some of the provincial governments.”

However, the official pointed out that China is inconsistent with its policies toward Korean travelers.

“There is no unified policy from the Chinese city and provincial governments,” said the official. Korean consulate officials are being dispatched to airports in Chinese provinces and cities upon arrival of flights to respond to the uncertain situation.

There are more than 83,000 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, with spikes in Iran and Italy, and a death toll over 2,800. More than 78,800 cases and 2,700 deaths have occurred in China.

On Jan. 30, Korea decided to provide $5 million in emergency assistance to China, including donations of 2 million masks as well as protective gear and eyewear. Many of the medical supplies have already been transported, with reported shipments of some 15,000 latex gloves to Liaoning and Jilin provinces Thursday despite concerns of a shortage of medical supplies domestically.

Around half the remaining pledged assistance will be conveyed to China through an international organization, said a Foreign Ministry official Friday.

Some news out of China is positive. Liaoning in northeastern China, bordering North Korea, Shanxi, Yunnan and Guangdong, is among provinces that have downgraded the coronavirus emergency response level from the highest Level 1 to Level 3.

The U.S. State Department raised its travel advisory for South Korea by one notch to Level 3 on a four-tier scale Wednesday, urging Americans to “reconsider” visiting the country during the coronavirus outbreak. It has a Level 4 warning against travel to China.

U.S. President Donald Trump said in a press briefing Wednesday that now is not the “right time” to restrict travel to and from South Korea. He said Korea was among countries best prepared for an epidemic according to a Johns Hopkins University study that ranked the United States as No. 1.

Vietnam said it will temporarily suspend a visa-waiver program for South Korean visitors starting Saturday. Under the program, Koreans had been able to stay in Vietnam for up to 15 days without a visa. Vietnam has banned travelers coming from Daegu and North Gyeongsang.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry confirmed Friday that Vietnam had informed Korea of this plan ahead of time.

The ministry has been urging countries against taking excessive travel measures against South Korea and stressing its efforts toward a transparent response.

Experts point out that Korea has been conducting more stringent testing of potential patients than other countries.

Korea has tested nearly 78,830 people as of Friday, of which 48,593, have tested negative and over 30,000 are in the process of being tested.

Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha held a video conference with heads of missions in China and Vietnam Friday afternoon to discuss travel restrictions.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]