South Korea’s President Tried to Help China Contain the Coronavirus. Now People Want Him Impeached.

Beijing and Seoul were finally starting to get along. Then the coronavirus struck, South Korea decided to send masks, and everybody got mad.

People line up to buy face masks in Seoul
People line up to buy face masks amid concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, outside a pharmacy in Seoul on March 9. ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

SEOUL—Despite the warnings against congregating in large groups while the new coronavirus rages, a giant crowd of South Koreans lined up outside Happy Department Store on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, on a Friday afternoon late last month. 

Everyone was polite, and people moved forward at a measured pace—until they got inside the store, when they started running.

SEOUL—Despite the warnings against congregating in large groups while the new coronavirus rages, a giant crowd of South Koreans lined up outside Happy Department Store on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, on a Friday afternoon late last month. 

Everyone was polite, and people moved forward at a measured pace—until they got inside the store, when they started running.

Inside was a setup that resembled a soup kitchen, but rather than slinging hot bowls of jjigae, the proprietors were selling face masks at a discounted price to frenzied buyers. These days it seems like every South Korean you talk to on the street has one main concern for their personal safety: not being able to buy masks. 

And they’re not shy about saying who they blame for the shortage: South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who in a misguided effort to bolster improving relations with China sent medical equipment worth $5 million to Wuhan, where the first cases arose, in the early days of the epidemic, including 2 million face masks and 1 million medical masks. But now the virus is spreading rapidly in South Korea, and the news media and ordinary people keep asking, “Why don’t I have enough masks?” and pointing the blame at neighboring China.

It is only one element of a Moon policy gone badly wrong and a wished-for rapprochement with China that is rapidly dissolving into anti-Chinese enmity and mistrust on both sides.

“Moon Jae-in’s pro-China policy, I argue, actually created or made worse, the anti-China sentiment [in South Korea],” Lee Seong-hyon, the director of Chinese studies at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank, told Foreign Policy.

Moon apparently had the best of intentions, even if they were largely political. From the very beginning of the epidemic he sought to be supportive of China, not banning entry of travelers from China and sending supportive words and supplies. Parliamentary elections take place next month in South Korea, and Moon knew that a planned state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping would be quite the boon for his party, showing that South Korea is back in business with China after several years of high tensions.

“Xi’s visit to South Korea will officially be a sign that, finally, China is ending its economic retaliation against the South Korea over the THAAD issue,” Lee said, referring to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, the U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense system set up in South Korea in 2017. 

China saw this as a threat to its “legitimate national security interests,” because the system had a potential range much farther than just North Korea. In response, Beijing began to batter the South Korean economy. Tours to South Korea stopped coming, concerts got canceled, and Lotte Group, a conglomerate that owns the land that the missile system stands upon, saw a flurry of issues arise for its many supermarkets in China and has now closed them all, to name a few retaliations.

Now, South Koreans are looking with mistrust over at China—and to make matters worse, now some Chinese regions have started putting travel restrictions on South Koreans to keep the virus out. The epidemic of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, has claimed 53 lives in the country among more than 3,000 worldwide.

Some 1.45 million South Koreans have since signed a petition calling for Moon Jae-in to be impeached. “President Moon Jae-in’s response to the new coronavirus shows that he is more likely the president of China and not the president of the Republic of Korea. In Korea, the price of masks soared more than 10 times, they are difficult for people to find or sold out,” reads the petition, which concludes: “It is difficult to think of Moon as the president of Korea. I request an impeachment.” 

The Chinese themselves are also seen as a danger. Currently, only people who are traveling from Hubei province, the epicenter of the current outbreak, have been banned from entering South Korea, but newspapers, petitions (with over 760,000 signatures), and people online have been calling for sweeping bans on Chinese travelers in general. 

“China is our enemy, we hate every communist party,” Yang Sung-yol, 65, told Foreign Policy at the scene of a protest on March 9 in the university district of Hongdae in Seoul. “We oppose every political move Moon makes. Our rage level is high!” 

In the background, a group of people wore masks depicting either Xi Jinping or Moon Jae-in. At one point a girl wearing a Xi mask walked into the center of the protest carrying a rope that was around the neck of a man wearing a Moon mask. She made “Moon” dance on command and beg.

“Outright hate against China is not right, but diplomacy is all about prioritizing your country first, and I think our government didn’t do that,” said Kim Keun-tae, 31, who described himself as the spokesperson for the protest. 

At a joint press conference Monday representing various South Korean ministries, departments, and disease control task forces, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Lee Taeho defended the government’s position of cooperation and lack of travel restrictions. “In this global age where people travel freely, we prosper because of it,” he said in his prepared remarks.

“The World Health Organization, based on past experience, claims that restricting movement on people and goods is ineffective and may divert resources from other places. Despite public pressure and calls for stronger measures to restrict influx, my government has not imposed travel bans, except for people traveling from Hubei province, by introducing instead a special entry procedure,” he said.

Any arrivals from China must download an app in the airport where they put in daily measures such as whereabouts, possible symptoms, and fever temperatures, which the officials touted as a great tool for not restricting movement and simultaneously keeping any potentially infected people reined in. The vice minister also mentioned the equipment his administration had sent across the Yellow Sea to help alleviate a troubled China, which in turn now is helping South Korea, he said.

“With the global spread seemingly underway, it calls for cooperation. We need to guard ourselves not only against the spread but also against fear and discrimination, which strain our open democracy. We must handle this situation without leaving lasting scars on trade, which is the basis for our prosperity,” Lee Taeho said.

To further appease the mask-craving people, a new law completely bans the exports of South Korean masks and requires producers to distribute 80 percent of masks through official public channels such as post offices, local pharmacies, or publicly run stores that run events like the one at Happy Department Store. “We’re appointed by the government to prepare and provide those masks to people,” Cheong Jin-su, the director of the Small Business Distribution Center, an organization under the Ministry of SMEs and Start-ups, told Foreign Policy.

“Today there are three times more people coming to buy than yesterday. We have already sold 63,000 masks since yesterday, and we have prepared 250,000 to sell today,” he added from the register line, where people flooded through grasping their maximum of five masks per person and hurried to get out of the mass of potentially sick people.

The people who finally received masks were somewhat placated. “I think the government is handling the mask problem a little bit late,” 50-year-old Kim Seo-young told Foreign Policy after she acquired her five masks. 

But back at the protest, they were not satisfied with the export ban. The protesters wanted more: that people traveling from China be entirely barred from the country. Whether or not that would have made a difference is hard to say, as most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in South Korea have been traced to a notorious religious sect called Shincheonji whose original infection route is uncertain, albeit two followers visited Wuhan in January, where one was confirmed infected in late February. 

According to the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office, the planned Chinese state visit will still take place sometime in the first half of the year.

Morten Soendergaard Larsen is a freelance journalist based in Seoul who writes about geopolitics.

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