• Kyodo, Bloomberg, staff report


South Korea has retaliated against Japan’s “irrational and excessive” request for Korean visitors to voluntarily self-quarantine upon arrival as measures to contain the novel coronavirus epidemic threatened to exacerbate bilateral tensions.

South Korea plans to raise its travel advisory for Japan to Level 2, or “refrain from travel,” First Deputy Foreign Minister Cho Se-young said in a statement late Friday. It also plans to halt a visa-waiver program for Japanese starting Monday and introduce a mandatory two-week quarantine period for any visitors from the country, in response to similar measures imposed by Tokyo in connection with the outbreak.

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “deep regret” over Japan’s latest travel restrictions in a statement the same day, saying they came “without prior or sufficient discussion with us, and we strongly urge these measures be immediately withdrawn.” The ministry hinted at deeper mistrust between the two sides as well, saying “we cannot help but be suspicious of a separate intention other than prevention of the virus.”

In the meantime, Mike Ryan, who heads the World Health Organization’s emergency response program, criticized the bilateral dispute as an unhelpful “political spat.”

“Both countries are doing a fine job in the face of this epidemic,” Ryan was quoted as saying in media reports. But he also reportedly said that “these restrictions are not helping” with efforts to halt the virus’s spread.

The visa waiver program enables Japanese to stay in the country for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. A ministry official explained that Japanese who have already entered South Korea without visas can continue their stays without issue.

The Japanese government announced Thursday that visitors from South Korea and China will be asked to quarantine themselves for two weeks at designated facilities. It is also revoking some visas already issued to travelers from both countries.

The move was prompted in part by a surge in infections in South Korea and its efforts to contain the epidemic.

South Korea’s criticism of the response and its retaliation lay bare, once again, the rocky relationship between the two neighbors, which have long feuded over territorial and historical disputes.

“It is unfortunate that so many countries have applied travel restrictions on South Koreans, but these measures should be temporary as Seoul is demonstrating transparency and competency in its public health response to the coronavirus,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said in an email message to The Japan Times.

“The COVID-19 outbreak inevitably mixes with politics because Asia has long been plagued by nationalist historical disputes. The Moon administration’s reaction to the Abe government’s struggle to save the summer Olympics looks especially motivated by politics. South Korea’s April elections are approaching, and playing the ‘Japan card’ is an old tactic to deflect domestic criticism,” he wrote, referring to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

China in the meantime voiced understanding of Japan’s move the same day.

“Each country has taken scientific and reasonable steps to protect the lives and health of its people and to maintain global public health,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Friday.

Earlier this week, the Beijing municipal government announced the enforcement of a 14-day quarantine and observation for those traveling from severely infected countries, including Japan and South Korea.

South Korea has the largest number of coronavirus infections outside China with over 6,200 confirmed. Most cases have been found in the southeastern city of Daegu, where mass transmissions are believed to have occurred among members of a minor Christian sect.

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