Anchor: Hello and welcome to the France 24 interview. Our guest today is South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang, Kyung-wha. She joins us by satellite from Seoul. Thank you very much for being with us today.
FM: Thank you for having me.
Anchor: Mrs. Minister, South Korea has earned plaudits from around the globe for its tackling of the coronavirus pandemic. The number of infections dropped from 900 a day in late February to less than 30 per day, this without imposing any lock downs and even holding legislative elections this week. What has South Korea done differently?
FM: Let me first begin by expressing my solidarity and appreciation for all the medical staff and the frontline workers who are fighting this unprecedented health challenge around the world. I think the work has been remarkably valiant but also very difficult and that has certainly been the case in our country as well. My heartfelt sympathies to the victims and the families who have certainly lost loved ones in this crisis. Governments are fighting this around the world, and so as government, our solidarity with the governments in the midst of this. As you say, things have stabilized here in my country. The numbers of new infections are now under 50 and that has been continuing trend during the past week. So yes, we have acted quickly and preemptively. And that is not just our philosophy, but is a reflection of our recent experience. You may know that in 2014, we had a terrible ferryboat accident where we lost 304 lives in the midst of a very inept response by the government at the time. And that has been a collective trauma to all Korean people. And the following year, in 2015, we had a MERS outbreak that lasted for about three months. It didn’t affect that many people but was very, highly fatal. And I think the government’s reaction then was also initially very intransparent and dismissive, and so heavily criticized, it came around, responded, and contained. So this government has been very determined to be prepared when disaster strikes. We may not be able to prevent disasters from striking, but we can do a lot to prepare so that we can minimize the human suffering and contain the socioeconomic consequences. So from the very beginning, we were of a mindset and a government machinery ready to act quickly and preemptively, and that is what we have done, and being uncompromisingly transparent and open in the process. Our fight about the virus is about robust testing, very vigorous tracing, and quick treatment of the patients. In addition to transparent and open, we have also been very adaptive, adapting our response to the changing nature of this new challenge of a new virus, the nature of which we don’t fully understand as yet.
Anchor: Right. Mrs. Foreign Minister, massive testing has been the key. There are reports that the United States has ordered some 600,000 testing kits from South Korea. Are you confirming that this is the case that South Korea will send such amount and even more testing kits to the US?
FM: Yes, we are in fact. I think these are FDA approved, preliminary approval for these quickly approved, and as a result of a conversation between my President and President Trump last month. So yes, I think the contracts have been signed and they should be ready for shipment any time soon. But we’re also sending test kits to many other countries as well.
Anchor: Right. Do you fear “second wave” of the virus? You’ve imposed harsher controls for people coming into the country last week. We’ve seen these happen in China. Is this a real concern in your country as well?
FM: As I said, we don’t know fully about the nature of this new virus. We know that it travels very quickly. We know that it’s highly fatal to certain people with certain medical conditions, especially among the elderly people. But what we are discovering these days is that those fully cured and released, many of them have been found to test positive a few days after. So now we’re learning that, there’s a lot more that we need to learn about how the virus travels in addition to the need to find cures and vaccines. The nature of the virus, a lot of uncertainties surrounding that, but also, as you say, now we have many cases found among recent travelers that have come back to the country from overseas travel. So this is global challenge. It is not enough that we contain the disease inside the country. This is a challenge that we have to overcome together as a global community.
Anchor: Right. We saw Japan declare a state of emergency. And you’ve chosen not to impose any lockdown. There’s strict social distancing as there are known guidelines that have been prolonged. Could you consider harsher measure if you see that indeed the virus is coming back through people coming in or people being reinfected?
FM: As I said, our principle has been openness. Obviously, the virus travels with people. So to contain the virus, you have to contain people movement. And you can do this from two different approaches. You either respect the freedom of movement of people and make exceptions for those who need to be contained, the patients certainly, but for the close contacts, or you do the opposite way. You crack down on the movement and you make an exception for the travel. Our approach has been from the very beginning, by default, respecting the people’s right to freedom of movement, and then to implement measures where necessary and proportionate to the needs to manage the risk. Now because the risk factor comes with the people traveling, coming from overseas into the countries, we have placed all travelers coming from outside the country to 14 days of self-isolation either in their homes or in government-sponsored facilities for monitoring and testing if necessary and then hospitalization if necessary. So our measures have adapted to the evolving nature of this challenge but the principle has been to preserve that openness to the very best of our abilities and that has meant a great deal of work for the government. But we have managed. I don’t think the idea of a lockdown or blockade would be acceptable to our public. Even at the hight of our crisis, when this was exploding in the southern city of Daegu and Gyeongbuk province where numbers were climbing by the hundreds, as you say, to a maximum of 900 per day, even then, we did not impose a blockade. We strongly advised people not to go to crowded places, to stay home, but we did not impose mandatory travel bans. People were still free to travel in and out of the city even at that time. The idea of a mandatory blockade would be contrary to our principle of openness.
Anchor: Do you agree with President Trump that the World Health Organization has been too slow and even too lenient with China?
FM: I think in hindsight, we can say a lot of things. But I don’t think anybody knew how fast this virus would travel at the very beginning. For Korea, the WHO has been a very collaborative and very helpful partner throughout this challenge. We communicate very closely, and we support its work. WHO is the technical agency at the lead of this global health crisis response and it should be supported. There will be lots of lessons learned at some point when we take stock. But we need to support the lead agency as we try to come together in the midst of this crisis.
Anchor: Just very quickly, your neighbor North Korea claims it has no case at all. Is it a reliable assertion?
FM: That is its official position, I think we need to take that with some grain of salt. But it is an intransparent, closed country where information is very difficult to get. But we watch very closely on the developments with the information that we are able to garner through its official media outlets. But we will see. And we stand prepared. My government, we really think that cooperation between South and North Korea in the health sector, especially at a time of this contagious disease, is necessary. We have made that offer. But so far, we have not received any positive response.
Anchor: Just a very last question. We’ve seen testing of missiles by North Korea. Are you fearing an escalation while the world is focused on fighting the pandemic?
FM: Again, we watch very closely. We analyze these recent short-range projectiles they’re firing with our US ally. This is certainly unhelpful as we are dealing with this unprecedented global health crisis. It is certainly unhelpful to our efforts to revive the momentum for dialogue towards denuclearization and work towards lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.
Anchor: Foreign Minister Kang, Kyung-wha, Thank you very much for being with us here in France 24 from Seoul and telling us about how your country is fighting coronavirus. Thank you for watching this interview. /End/