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Entry ban on Koreans not applied by Washington

Mar 03,2020
U.S. President Donald Trump stressed that passengers from “high risk countries” will have to undergo health screenings before flying to the United States after his administration advised Americans not to travel to Daegu, the southeastern city in Korea with the most coronavirus cases.

Trump tweeted Sunday, “In addition to screening travelers ‘prior to boarding’ from certain designated high risk countries, or areas within those countries, they will also be screened when they arrive in America.”

Seoul has been in a difficult position dealing with the travel restrictions that have been unpredictably slapped on Korean travelers. The biggest variable is measures taken by the United States, which often set a precedent for other countries. American action could have an impact on both outbound tourists and Korea’s global trade and diplomatic relations.

As of Monday, 81 countries or territories have implemented some form of entry ban or bolstered quarantine measures for people coming from Korea, or parts of the country most affected by the new coronavirus such as Daegu and North Gyeongsang, according to Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The U.S. State Department has stopped short of banning the entry of foreigners traveling from Korea despite raising its travel advisory two notches in the course of a week.

On Saturday, the U.S. State Department raised its travel advisory to Level 4, the highest in its four-tier system, urging Americans not to travel to Daegu because of the coronavirus outbreak. But it stopped short of expanding the advisory to the rest of the country and continued to maintain a Level 3 advisory for other parts of Korea, urging Americans to “reconsider” a visit.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force, in a press conference Saturday said that Trump directed the U.S. State Department to coordinate with Korea and Italy a “medical screening” of individuals entering the United States from those countries.

In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Pence differentiated between U.S. entry bans on all foreign visitors who had been in China and Iran in the past 14 days from the travel advisories on regions in Italy and Korea.

All foreigner visitors who had been in Iran in the past two weeks will “not be allowed to come into the United States,” said Pence.

He continued, “But for Italy and South Korea that are seeing a rising number of coronavirus cases, the president wanted to use the authority to issue a travel advisory, it’s called Level 4, to tell the American people do not travel to those affected areas in Italy and in South Korea. But we are also making that connected to a screening process that we’ve already initiated discussions with both countries.”

Pence also addressed the issue of defective test kits in the United States as the interviewer noted that countries like Korea have drive-through testing clinics for quick and accessible testing of hundreds of people daily.

“We believe we are in the process of resolving the issues about testing kits,” Pence said, adding that “more than 15,000 kits are going out to the relevant areas” to enable states to conduct tests on their own. U.S. health authorities have tested some 500 people as of Sunday, with delays after states have to await results from the central Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“We’ve actually screened 47,000 people coming through designated airports in the country,” added Pence.

Pence warned, “We know that there will be many more cases” of the coronavirus in the United States. But he said the United States “is more prepared than any other nation in the world” and remains “hopeful we’ll be able to mitigate the spread” of the virus.

U.S. local authorities confirmed the second death from the coronavirus in the United States Sunday, a man in his 70s with underlying health conditions in Washington.

When asked if a travel ban could be expanded to Korea and Italy, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a separate Fox News interview Sunday that “everything will always be on the table” but defended current measures in place by the administration on those countries.

“The point is, with Italy and South Korea we have highly developed public health and health care systems,” Azar noted. “We have transparent leadership and very aggressive action that’s been on it from Day 1. So, at this point, we think advising people not to go is the right measure.”

He said, “We already had Level 3 travel warnings for all of Italy and all of South Korea” and further escalated the State Department advisory to Level 4 for the “impacted areas in northern Italy and the one region of South Korea.”

But the Trump administration could authorize a travel ban through Section 212(f) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which suspended entry of foreign visitors from China on Jan. 31 and mostly recently Iran.

Korea has become the country with the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases outside of China, with over 4,300 patients as of Monday. Health authorities are testing over 200,000 members of the Shincheonji church, a religious sect linked to the high rate of infections in Daegu and the North Gyeongsang region.

Despite the exponential spike in cases in just two weeks, Korea has also been lauded by foreign health experts and media for a speedy testing process and a transparent information-sharing system through multiple daily briefings by health authorities and real-time smartphone alerts.

Likewise, U.S. officials have also recognized Korea’s active measures to screen the virus swiftly and disseminate information in a reliable manner, according to Seoul officials, some dubbing it the “Korea model.”

“The unified response in the U.S. government is that Korea is conducting thorough inspections and taking action based on these results in a transparent and trustworthy manner,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told reporters Sunday. “U.S. officials who we have contacted have called it the ‘Korea model’ and are receiving briefings through the Korean Embassy in Washington.”

Another Korean Foreign Ministry official said Monday, “U.S. experts have been referring to the ‘Korea model,’ and this case shows the sort of dynamism Korea has as a democracy, and in explaining the situation to other countries.”

The official added, “The reason why not many developed countries have imposed entry bans is because they are confident in their health systems and containment capabilities.”

Korea’s top carriers Korean Air and Asiana Airlines have since Saturday been screening passengers headed for the United States for symptoms such as a fever at airports, and such measures are expected to be bolstered. Korean Air also said it will reduce flights on U.S. routes this month and use smaller planes due to decreased travel over the coronavirus scare.

There are 36 countries or territories with some form of entry ban on foreign travelers coming from Korea, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.

Many of the entry bans are imposed by remote island nations that have barred entry of people from other countries with a high number of coronavirus cases. Other popular tourism and key business destinations such as Turkey have banned all foreigners coming in from Korea. Some countries like Saudi Arabia, while banning entry of foreign tourists who have been in Korea, allow exceptions for those with work or business visas.

Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines ban travelers coming from Daegu and the North Gyeongsang region in the past 14 days.

Some 45 countries or territories are listed as implementing strengthened quarantine procedures for Korea, the latest being New Zealand.

In China, the ministry lists 14 Chinese provinces and cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, as having quarantine measures on Koreans, generally 14 days of self-quarantine at home or a designated hotel.

Korea on Saturday issued a “navy” travel alert, the lowest on a four-level scale, for all of Japan, advising its citizens to take precautions when traveling to the country. Japan has implemented an entry ban on travelers who have been in Daegu and Cheongdo County, North Gyeongsang, in the past 14 days.

The Korean Foreign Ministry has been updating on its website at least twice a day the countries that have implemented entry bans and other travel restrictions on Korea.

A civic group filed a complaint against Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha with the Seoul Central Prosecutors’ Office Monday accusing the ministry of mishandling the travel restrictions on Korea over the coronavirus outbreak. It also filed a complaint against Culture Minister Park Yang-woo over confusing information on the coronavirus on the ministry’s website.

Foreign Minister Kang has been speaking to top envoys of countries across the world during a trip to Europe over the past week and over the phone, briefing them on Seoul’s efforts to contain the virus. She held phone calls Monday with her counterparts in Canada, the United Arab Emirates and the Maldives.

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