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2nd Vice Minister's Remarks on the occasion of Foreign Press Briefing Seoul, March 9, 2020

  • Date : 2020-03-12 16:18:21
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2nd Vice Minister’s Remarks on the occasion of Foreign Press Briefing, Seoul, March 9, 2020

                                 Opening Remarks by H.E. Amb. Lee Taeho                                  

Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs
On the Occasion of Foreign Press Briefing
9 March 2020, Seoul

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My colleagues from the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have just provided you with a comprehensive briefing on the current situation of COVID-19 in Korea and the robust and innovative measures we are taking to contain the COVID-19.  On my part, I would like to highlight certain notable points of the responses my government is taking, focusing on Korea’s external relations with other countries in dealing with this health emergency. 

Before starting my remarks, I would like to note that many of you present here covered the COVID-19 situation in Korea and provided a fair assessment of the Korean government’s responses.  I thank you for that.

As you have just heard, we have mobilized not only our scientific and technological resources, but delved into our innovative tools as well. Korea has the best diagnostic capability by far, testing up to 15,000 cases per day. We have been innovative in pioneering tools such as drive-through testing stations and smart-phone applications to support our efforts.

More importantly, my government has remained in combat with the COVID-19 while trying to avoid interrupting the ordinary daily life of people.  We also have shared with the public, both domestic and international, information on every development in the situation as well as every policy direction and action that my government takes – with utmost openness and transparency from the very beginning.  This is what Vice Minister KIM called “a dynamic response system for open democratic societies.”

We are firm in our belief that public health challenges can only be overcome with public trust in our efforts. And that public trust can only to be earned and harnessed through full openness and transparency.  A recent study (The Economist, February 2020) that analyzed world-wide epidemics since the 1960s came to the conclusion that adopting fact-based policymaking and sharing information with the public is the best strategy.   As this is precisely the path my government has taken, there is a deep and wide public confidence in our diagnostic capabilities and quality of healthcare. This public trust has resulted in a very high level of civic awareness and voluntary cooperation that strengthens our collective efforts to overcome this public health emergency.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As Vice Minister Kim reiterated, the Korean government is in full cognizance of the importance of our strict adherence to the principles of openness and transparency.  This feature of the Korean government’s domestic response posture is reflected like a mirror image in its response to Korea’s external interactions with other countries during the course of dealing with this health emergency.

In this global age where people travel freely, things move across borders and we prosper because of it, the consensus among public health professionals seems to be that travel bans are not effective in containing contagious illnesses and can make things worse by fueling a sense of complacency.

The WHO also repeatedly says, based on past evidence, that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions. The WHO, therefore, recommends that any measures in relations to international traffic that significantly interfere with the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies need to be proportionate to the public health risk, be short in duration, and be reconsidered regularly as situation evolves.

The Korean government has taken this path from the very beginning.

My government has not introduced any entry ban on inbound travelers, except those travelling from only a single, most severely affected area in China. By introducing, instead, the special entry procedure aimed at enhanced health monitoring of travelers coming from certain areas and countries with higher risks, the Korean government was able to avoid an outright entry ban while minimizing the risk of expansion of disease. Maintaining this policy has been a daunting challenge, but the Korean government is determined to continue to comply with WHO recommendations with full confidence that it is the right way to follow.

Despite the WHO’s recommendations, travelers leaving from Korea or a certain part of the Korean territory are now facing some form of entry bans from more than 40 countries.  I would like to emphasize that any travel restrictions on travelers from Korea should be commensurate with the facts, not based on vague fear. 

In this context, please allow me to point out three facts here.

(1) First, as Vice Minister Kim said, intensive tests are being undertaken for a certain target group of people in specified regional areas.  When you spread the number of testing to the nation-wide average, one out of every 250 Korean people has been tested. Paradoxically, the high number of confirmed cases is a testament of the Korean government’s thorough and rapid diagnostic screening.

(2) Second, the high level of public trust and civic awareness that has resulted in widespread voluntary self-quarantine and other preventive measures, like “social distancing,” is effectively slowing the spread of the outbreak.

(3) Third, the possible outflow from Korea of COVID-19 is strictly controlled. Individuals identified as close contacts of confirmed cases are not allowed to go abroad. Also, we are making the Incheon International Airport into a COVID-19 free zone and have made mandatory multi-step fever checks on all outbound passengers.

Considering these points and other facts, I believe that the restrictive measures that have been imposed on people traveling from Korea require a careful reconsideration and warrant lifting.  I would like to urge, once again, countries imposing restrictions on travelers from Korea to review the facts of the situation in Korea and reconsider their measures.
The WHO has shown continued trust in Korea’s emergency response capability and its public health measures since the early stages of the outbreak.  Recently, both the American and European Chambers of Commerce have made clear through press briefings and releases that they are in full support of my government’s response efforts and a high degree of transparency with full information disclosure.  I sincerely hope that the members of the media present here today will be the eyes and ears of the COVID-19 situation in Korea and look not only at the rising number of confirmed cases, but what lies behind those numbers.

Ladies and gentlemen,

With the global spread of the virus seemingly underway, the situation calls for heightened international communication and cooperation in health security. We need to guard not only against the spread of the virus, but also fear, discrimination and isolation – all of which may strain our core values of free and open democracy.

We all share the grave challenge to contain and control this epidemic and minimize its over-reaching impact on our way of lives. In doing so, we hopefully shall not leave lasting scars on the spirit of free trade and movement of people which is the basis of our shared prosperity. 

Thank you.   /End/