Country Report: South Korea (March 2020)

In February 2020, the South Korean government tackled the coronavirus outbreak, also known as COVID-19. Following the diagnosis of “patient 31” in Daegu, the virus spread rapidly, and Korea raised its alert to the highest level. South Korean media focused on 1) ROK-China diplomatic relations; 2) South Korea’s supply chain disruptions and economic dependence on China; and 3) China and Japan’s travel restrictions on Korea. Policy recommendations on South Korea’s response to COVID-19 varied between conservatives and progressives, especially on the level of travel restrictions on foreigners entering from China.

In March 2020, North Korea fired two rounds of projectiles after Moon’s call for inter-Korean cooperation on health care. Both conservatives and progressives expressed disappointment and concern, especially since this occurred shortly after Trump indicated that he may not want to hold another summit with Kim Jong-un during the presidential campaign season. The two sides emphasized different aspects in their policy recommendations with conservatives stressing the US-ROK alliance and progressives calling for inter-Korean cooperation projects such as health care.

COVID-19 and ROK-China diplomatic relations

South Korea has been affected by the novel coronavirus. With a total of 15 cases confirmed as of February 3, South Korea managed to keep the outbreak under control as death tolls surged in China. On February 4, the South Korean government implemented an entry ban on all foreigners who have visited Hubei province from January 21. The government also announced that it would temporarily suspend the visa-free program to Jeju Island. In response, opposition lawmaker Hwang Kyo-Ahn stated that this measure should expand to “all foreigners who visited China recently.”1

On the same day, Moon Jae-in sent a message to Xi Jinping, stating that although such travel restrictions were “inevitable,” both sides cooperate and overcome the situation.2 On February 4, Chinese ambassador Xing Haiming thanked South Korea for supporting China but stated that he would not “evaluate” Korea’s travel restrictions.3 He then asked countries to make decisions based on the World Health Organization’s recommendations, which stated that states should not “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade.”4 On February 6, Xing clarified his statement, stating that he was “not in a position to publicly assess measures taken by the hosting country.”5

On February 20, Moon and Xi spoke on the phone to discuss the situation of COVID-19.6 They exchanged views on combatting COVID-19 and agreed to cooperate setting up joint response systems. In addition, both sides agreed to coordinate Xi’s visit to South Korea during the first half of the year. This was the fourth conversation between the two leaders since Moon assumed the presidency. On February 22, the Blue House announced that it would not “impose a sweeping ban on the entry of Chinese nationals after carefully reviewing how best to respond to the situation while maintaining public safety as the top priority.”7 This is because: 1) special entry procedures have been implemented; 2) inbound Chinese travelers are being monitored; 3) there are not many Chinese travelers entering Korea; 4) newly confirmed patients in China are decreasing; and 5) the government is adhering to WHO guidelines.8 This was a response to the public petition to impose an entry ban on all Chinese nationals, which had received a total of 761,833 signatures.9

Conservative editorials criticized Moon for insufficient measures in curbing the coronavirus outbreak. On February 3, Munwha wrote that Moon cautiously limited the entry ban to foreigners who have visited Hubei to maintain ROK-China relations.10 It stated that the ban on visitors from Hubei province would not be effective since China had already imposed a quarantine on January 23. The editorial wrote that South Koreans face high risks in contracting the virus, especially since an average of 20,000 visitors from China enter Korea per day. Rather than adopting a cautious attitude towards China, the editorial urged Moon to expand the scope of the travel ban on China. The editorial pointed out that the US, Singapore, New Zealand, Guatemala, and Australia have already implemented varying travel restrictions on all foreigners who had been in China. Munwha urged the Moon administration to follow their example and protect the safety of its citizens. Segye chimed in on February 4 and questioned the effectiveness of Moon’s travel ban since there were 5,400 confirmed patients in China outside of Hubei province.11 The editorial took a stronger stance and suggested that the administration expand the travel ban to all of China, calling for China, Japan, and South Korea to cooperate and share patient information.

Conservative editorials further criticized Moon for being soft on China due to upcoming elections. On February 5, Munwha interpreted Xing’s comment that he would not “evaluate” South Korea’s travel ban as Beijing’s expression of disapproval.12 The editorial criticized the Blue House officials’ response, which stated that the administration was unaware of WHO guidelines and reiterated that South Korea would cooperate with China on this matter. The editorial pointed out that the Moon administration had criticized Ambassador Harry Harris on January 16 for suggesting a US-ROK working group on North Korea. In contrast, it noted that the ruling party members and government officials had refrained from criticizing Xing. Suggesting that Moon’s foreign policy was pro-China and anti-US, the editorial warned that such tendencies will harm national security and the safety of citizens. Chosun further argued that Moon and the ruling party members were soft on China due to the upcoming legislative elections in April 2020.12 Because Moon was unsuccessful in inviting Kim Jong-un before April, he was cautiously approaching this issue to confirm Xi’s visit as originally planned. The editorial criticized the administration, stating that it must not prioritize foreign policy achievements over the safety of its citizens.

Progressive Kyunghyang editorialized on the need to maintain ROK-China relations. On February 4, Kyunghyang noted that Xing’s press briefing within the first five days of his appointment was unprecedented.14 The editorial stated that Beijing may have done so in consideration of worsening South Korean public opinion toward China, adding that Xing’s statement that he would not “evaluate” South Korea was meant to be diplomatic since it implied that he was refraining from commenting on the issue. However, the editorial stated that Xing’s move was not appropriate and that he should have conveyed Beijing’s thoughts behind closed doors. Kyunghyang further wrote that this incident shows how the outbreak of COVID-19 could affect ROK-China relations. It warned that the administration should prevent the worsening of bilateral relations and emphasized that active cooperation is necessary to protect citizens of both countries. The editorial noted that the Democratic Party of Korea has suggested expanding the travel ban to around five provinces in addition to Hubei province. Kyunghyang urged the government to make an accurate judgment based on the situation.

Progressive editorial Hankyoreh cautioned against a travel ban on all of China because it could spark anti-Chinese sentiments. On February 2, Hankyoreh acknowledged the importance of controlling the inflow of foreign travelers from China and noted that 60-some countries have already implemented varying travel restrictions.15 The editorial further acknowledged that many South Koreans have been pointing to the United States’ travel ban on all of China and calling for a similar measure. However, Hankyoreh cautioned that such a travel ban could lead to anti-Chinese sentiments, adding that the public should understand that the travel ban is not the only measure that the government is implementing. For example, the government has decided to diagnose Chinese visitors outside of Hubei province who show symptoms of pneumonia. The editorial urged the public to refrain from excessive fear and criticisms towards China and further suggested that the government constantly examine the distribution of diagnostic tools. 

COVID-19 and South Korea’s supply chain disruptions

On February 4, Hyundai Motor Group and Kia Motors Corporation announced that they would temporarily suspend production lines from February 5 to 12 in Ulsan, Hwasong, and Gwangju factories due to the shortage of waring harnesses imported from China. This decision was made after Beijing announced mandatory factory shutdowns until February 9 to contain the coronavirus. Hyundai’s spokesman stated, “If the situation in China does not improve, we will have to find other sources of supply – whether it is importing from Southeast Asia or sourcing products domestically.”16 SsangYong Motor Company also stated that it would halt operations in its Pyeongtaek plant due to the supply of auto parts. GM Korea Company and Renault Samsung Motors stated that operations would remain open since they could receive parts from Nissan Motor and Mitsubishi Motors.

On February 18, Hyundai Motor Group temporarily suspended its Ulsan assembly plant once more due to supply chain disruptions in China.17 It was reported that although 38 out of 40 Chinese plants that supply wiring harnesses had resumed operations, 40 percent of Chinese employees could not return to work due to restrictions on mobility.18 Because of the shortage of supplies, Hyundai suspended operations and Kia Motors halted resumption of operations. This led to a sharp reduction in the prediction of Hyundai’s Q1 earnings. Facing warnings of an economic recession, the Moon administration announced on February 20 that it would provide fiscal measures to support the domestic economy, including the export industry.19

Conservative editorials expressed concern towards South Korea’s economic dependence on China. Chosun wrote a series of articles in response to supply chain disruptions in China. On February 4, Chosun pointed to Hyundai and Kia’s suspended operations and warned that the coronavirus outbreak could deal a heavy blow to the domestic economy in the long run.20 The editorial argued that the “China risk” is high and the prolonged outbreak could decrease South Korea’s domestic consumption by 0.3 to 0.4 percent. The editorial further warned that if China’s market stagnates and supply lines are cut off, South Korea’s economy would be affected the most globally. Chosun stated that this is a result of heavy reliance on China’s economy – China accounts for 25 percent of South Korea’s exports and 21 percent of imports. Further, China accounts for 60 to 80 percent of South Korea’s exports in clothing, cosmetics, agricultural and fisheries products, and household goods. Around half of South Korea’s international students and 36 percent of foreign workers are Chinese as well. Therefore, Chosun urged South Korea to implement a long-term plan to reduce its economic dependence on China. On February 8, Chosun pointed out that Renault Samsung and GM Korea have not suspended operations since they have secured parts procurement in countries other than China. 21 It further noted that Japanese automobile factories have not shut down operations because they diversified markets in Southeast Asia as a result of Japan’s “China plus one” strategy to reduce its reliance on China after the 2010 Senkaku incident. Therefore, Chosun recommended that South Korea adopt long-term economic policies to diversify its supply chain network.

Progressive editorials also expressed the need for South Korea to reduce its reliance on China’s supply chains. On February 4, Hankyoreh wrote that Samsung, LG, and other electronics companies had to shut down local plants since they could not find alternative sources for Chinese parts.22 The editorial warned that the Japan-ROK trade dispute in 2019 and the coronavirus outbreak have shown South Korea’s dependence on China and Japan for materials, components, and equipment. Hankyoreh acknowledges that South Korean firms entered the Chinese market due to competitive advantages such as low wages. However, the editorial warns that companies must be prudent when setting up local factories in China based on lower variable costs. After the ROK-Japan trade dispute, the Moon administration has been increasing support for materials, parts, and equipment sectors to facilitate the localization of key components. Hankyoreh urged the Moon administration to implement a similar plan to reduce South Korea’s reliance on China’s supply chain. In addition, the editorial suggested that the administration review the U-turn Act, which provides incentives for companies to return to South Korea. Although this measure was approved by the National Assembly in November 2019, the editorial suggests that the existing measures may not be enough.

China and Japan’s travel restrictions on South Korea

On February 18, the South Korean government confirmed that “patient 31” was infected with COVID-19. After the patient attended the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, the virus spread rapidly throughout the region. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that the country had entered a “new phase” and called the patient a “super spreader.”23 On February 20, South Korea announced its first death, and the government designated Daegu city as a special zone following the rapid rise in infections. Four days later, South Korea raised the virus alert to “grave,” which is the highest level. As a result, countries began imposing varying levels of travel restrictions on South Korea since it had the second greatest number of confirmed COVID-19 patients. By February 27, five provinces in China tightened restrictions for visitors from South Korea.24

Conservative editorials expressed concern regarding the fall in South Korea’s soft power as more countries implemented travel restrictions on South Korea. On February 24, Joongang criticized the Moon administration and stated that the massive outbreak was a result of the government’s failure to curtail the disease during the early phases.25 It stated that Moon should have listened to the Korea Medical Association’s recommendation to ban travelers from all of China. The editorial stated that Moon’s inefficient handling of the outbreak ruined South Korea’s global image. For example, Israel, the United States, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Thailand imposed varying levels of travel restrictions on South Korea. Joongang warned that South Korea’s soft power, which was recently strengthened through the movie Parasite and K-pop group BTS, may erode and further lead to “Korea-phobia.” The editorial suggested that South Korea implement a travel ban on all of China rather than focusing on the upcoming elections in April. Munwha chimed in on February 26 and stated that Moon’s New Southern Policy also failed as evident in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand’s travel restrictions on South Korea without prior warnings through diplomatic channels.26 The editorial stated that the government should have refuted excessive travel restrictions through diplomacy while demanding that China reciprocate Korea’s limited travel bans.

Progressive editorials expressed disappointment towards China’s travel restrictions on the South. Kyunghyang wrote a series of editorials addressing these travel restrictions. On February 27, the editorial noted that Weihai city in Shandong, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, and Fujian implemented travel restrictions on foreigners from South Korea.27 They pointed out that the Moon administration only limited foreigners from Hubei despite fierce opposition from the conservative party and expressed disappointment towards China’s decisions. Kyunghyang stated that Foreign Minister Kang should take stronger diplomatic measures in addition to her phone call with Wang Yi on February 27. In addition, it urged China to reciprocate the Moon administration by removing excessive travel restrictions and preventing discrimination towards South Korean citizens. The editorial warned that ROK-China relations could worsen if China continues to increase the level of travel restrictions. On March 1, Kyunghyang expressed concern as countries enacted travel bans which impacted economic activities such as overseas business trips of local firms.28 The editorial suggested that MOFA protect the rights and interests of South Koreans both at home and abroad through diplomatic measures.

On March 9, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that a total of 106 countries imposed varying levels of entry restrictions or quarantine measures on people who have traveled to South Korea. On the same day, South Korea and Japan implemented tit-for-tat travel bans, hinting at worsening bilateral relations. After Japan suspended visa waivers for South Koreans, Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young expressed disappointment at Japan for its lack of transparency in implementing the travel restrictions.29 The South Korean government retaliated by halting the 90-day visa-free entry program for Japanese citizens and increasing the travel alert to Level 2, thereby discouraging citizens from traveling to Japan. 30 

Conservative Joongang expressed disappointment towards both Japan and South Korea’s decision to implement travel bans.31 On March 7, its editorial stated that it understood Japan’s decisions to increase the level of restrictions due to the upcoming summer Olympics. However, it expressed regret towards Japan’s actions made without prior consultations with the South Korean government. The editorial stated that there should have been dialogue between the two neighbors, especially since this would cause economic damage on both from the reduction of tourists. Joongang stated that both countries should refrain from escalating their responses which could result in unnecessary diplomatic tensions. The editorial further criticized the Moon administration for singling out Japan’s travel restrictions even though over 100 countries, including China, have imposed travel bans on Korea, calling for removing or lowering the level of travel restrictions from Japan without aggravating the situation.

Kyunghyang also expressed disappointment towards Japan’s decision to impose the travel ban and warned that high tensions could result. On March 6, the editorial wrote that it is understandable that the Japanese government is taking measures to protect its citizens.32 However, it argued that Japan’s move to quarantine South Koreans for two weeks is extreme and ignores South Korea’s efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. Kyunghyang expressed regret at the Japanese government’s lack of prior consultations and urged Abe to reconsider the entry restrictions. The editorial warned that further restrictions by the Japanese government could result in high tensions between the two countries.

Hankyoreh was more moderate and warned that South Korea and Japan should refrain from diplomatic tensions and instead opt for bilateral cooperation.33 On March 8, its editorial stated that both countries should tackle COVID-19 through practical quarantine measures since this would directly affect citizens. For example, South Korean college students would not be able to return to school in Japan while business related travel would be delayed. However, Hankyoreh argued that the Japanese government was responsible for solving this problem since it first imposed travel restrictions on Korea. In addition, the editorial stated that both sides should use their advanced quarantine systems to strengthen cooperation on disaster responses rather than increasing tensions.

US-North Korea denuclearization talks 

On February 10, Trump told his advisors that he did not want to hold a summit with Kim before the November presidential elections, according to CNN.34 Further, US officials indicated that Trump did not want to pursue negotiations after the working-level talks in Stockholm resulted in a stalemate. On February 11, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien clarified that Trump was open to a US-North Korea summit if it would result in a “good deal.”35 On the same day, the White House announced that Alex Wong, former deputy special representative for North Korea at the State Department, was nominated as the alternate representative of the United States of America for Special Political Affairs in the United Nations.

Conservative editorials urged Moon to strengthen the US-ROK alliance as the US showed decreased interest in talks with the North. On February 13, Donga warned that Trump’s statement indicates that he is no longer interested in the North Korea issue. 36 The editorial further suggested that the US government may be purposefully refraining from pursuing talks with the North because of Moon’s personal efforts to improve inter-Korean relations. In particular, the US did not want South Korea to develop joint tourism with North Korea since it would weaken the sanctions regime. Donga therefore argued that South Korea should understand that it cannot independently solve the North Korea issue without the support and trust of its ally, the United States. On the same day, Munwha noted that key US officials working on North Korea have been replaced because Trump is directing his energies to his reelection campaign. The editorial predicted that Trump, no longer interested in North Korea, will focus on maintaining the status quo unless North Korea provokes first.37 In this situation, Munwha argued, the North may use this opportunity to increase its nuclear and missile capabilities. If the US loosens the maximum pressure campaign, the North may also conduct missile provocations towards South Korea. Therefore, the editorial argues, South Korea should: 1) maintain international cooperation in enforcing sanctions; 2) focus on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program; 3) take the lead in implementing sanctions; and 4) strengthen the US-ROK alliance.

Progressives responded to the departure of Alex Wong by urging Trump to resume talks with Kim. On February 12, Hankyoreh expressed concern as top officials including Alex Wong and Mark Lambert left the Department of State.38 The editorial interpreted these moves as Trump’s lack of commitment on the North Korea issue, especially with upcoming presidential elections. It further noted that Trump did not mention North Korea in his recent State of the Union address, indicating that he does not intend to hold another summit. Hankyoreh warned that the US will not be able to maintain the status quo on North Korea, especially since Pyongyang could test its “new strategic weapon.” Therefore, the editorial urged Trump to resume dialogue with North Korea through realistic measures.

Kyunghyang responded by urging Moon to develop inter-Korean relations. On February 11, Kyunghyang noted Trump’s lack of interest in an upcoming summit with Kim and predicted that the stalemate in US-North Korea relations will continue until the presidential election.39 The editorial further noted that North Korea’s attitude has not changed either. Kim has not shown interest in talks, and Rodong Sinmun stated that the North would develop science and technology for self-reliance. In this situation, Kyunghyang argued that the South Korean government should continue to promote inter-Korean projects. The editorial suggested that Seoul and Pyongyang cooperate in tackling COVID-19, which is a problem for the entire peninsula. It further suggested that the South Korean government formally propose cooperation with North Korea, especially since the US would not object to inter-Korean cooperation on the coronavirus. Working together using this opportunity would set a precedent for future inter-Korean projects.

The Special Measures Agreement and US-ROK security relations

On February 14, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense stated that it had not had discussions with the US regarding a possible move of THAAD missile interceptor launchers from Seongju County to other areas in South Korea. This was a response to the US Department of Defense’s FY 2021 budget proposal, which states that South Korea would cover the costs.40 Regarding the THAAD missile system, Vice Admiral Jon Hill stated that the move would upgrade and streamline the defense system and allow “additional launchers.”41 This alarmed the South Korean media, especially since the US could bring up this cost during the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) negotiations.42 In addition, China could impose economic retaliations as it had done in 2017. On March 17, the US and South Korea met in Los Angeles for the 7th round of SMA negotiations to discuss Seoul’s contribution as well as the potential furlough of Korean workers from April 1.43

Chosun welcomed the move of THAAD launchers to counter the North Korea missile threat. On February 15, its editorial stated that the separation of the launchers from the battery would upgrade the system and strengthen the protection of Seoul, the nation’s capital.44 In essence, it would help deter North Korean ballistic missiles with capabilities of intercepting the Nodong missiles and Pukguksong-2. In addition, the editorial pointed out this move would enable the integration of THAAD and Patriot defenses, which would then have the capability of intercepting North Korea’s new missiles that have irregular trajectories. Chosun criticized the South Korean government for worrying about China’s retaliation rather than welcoming these measures. The editorial pointed out that China would not be able to interfere in this issue, especially since the move involves launchers, not the radar system. Therefore, Chosun urged the government to prioritize the safety of its citizens from North Korea’s threats and even consider installing more THAAD systems.

Progressives expressed concern regarding this move because it could damage ROK-China relations. On February 16, Hankyoreh wrote that the South Korean government was likely notified about the upgrade of the THAAD system and predicted that the missile launchers could be deployed to the Seoul metropolitan area.45 The editorial warned that this could alarm South Korea’s neighbors, especially Russia, China, and North Korea. In particular, it warned that the move of THAAD launchers could potentially violate the “three nos” policy which could again result in China’s ban on group tours and Korean pop culture. The editorial stated that the US is considering allocating 58 billion won for the construction of the THAAD site and will ask South Korea to cover the costs during the burden-sharing negotiations. Therefore, Hankyoreh urged the government to: 1) strongly abide by the “three nos” policy and 2) establish firm principles and prevent the US from pressuring South Korea during SMA talks. 

Inter-Korean relations

On March 2, North Korea fired two projectiles, which appeared to be short-range ballistic missiles. The missiles were launched from Wonsan into the East Sea with a 20-second interval.46 In addition, photos indicate that the super-large multiple rocket launchers were the same as the ones used in November 2019. KCNA stated that Kim Jong-un attended the “long-range artillery strike dill” but did not include details of the launch.47 This is the North’s first missile launch in 2020 and occurred despite the US and South Korea’s joint cancellation of the military drill that was scheduled to begin on March 9.48

In response to the drill, the South Korean government expressed “grave concern” and urged the North to refrain from increasing military tensions on the peninsula.49 Trump stated that he had “no reaction” to the short-range missile tests. Kim Yo-jong, first vice-department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, criticized the Moon administration for its “truly shocking” response to a “routine” training.50 She further stated, “the South side is also fond of joint military exercises and it is preoccupied with all the disgusting acts like purchasing ultra-modern military hardware.”51 A MOFA spokesperson stated on March 4 that “the South and North should work together with mutual respect for each other” to advance inter-Korean relations.52

On March 9, North Korea fired three projectiles from Sondok into the East Sea. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff stated that the “launches appear to be part of its artillery strike drill involving multiple types of multiple rocket launchers for a wintertime exercise.”53 This test is presumed to be the North’s sixth test of its super-large multiple rocket launcher. In addition, this test occurred five days after Kim’s personal letter to Moon, which “conveyed his message of comfort to the South Korean people” and “underlined his unwavering friendship.”54

Conservative editorials urged Moon to strengthen US-ROK relations and prioritize the denuclearization of North Korea over inter-Korean projects. On March 2, Segye wrote that the North may have tested missiles to” 1) upgrade the weapon during the wintertime exercise and 2) crackdown on politicians following the dismissal of Ri Man-gon and Park Tae-deok from the WPK.55 In addition, Segye predicted that the North had no intention to pursue talks with the South, especially since Kim conducted the test shortly after Moon proposed inter-Korean cooperation on COVID-19. The editorial suggested that the North may conduct more missile and engine tests in the future. In addition, the US will likely not pursue any talks with North Korea until the presidential elections are over in November. Therefore, Segye urged Moon to adopt a stronger stance towards the North under the realization that inter-Korean cooperation cannot be realized until the denuclearization of the peninsula. After the North conducted another test on March 9, Segye expressed disappointment at Kim for doing so despite the ongoing coronavirus situation. The editorial criticized Moon for being soft on the North while retaliating against Japan for travel restrictions. As the COVID-19 situation develops, Segye warned, this could affect US-ROK joint readiness since the movement of USFK forces has been restricted.56 Therefore, the editorial urged South Korea to manage the alliance and strengthen its security posture on the peninsula.

Progressive editorials expressed disappointment at the North’s missile tests and called for inter-Korean cooperation on COVID-19. On March 2, Hankyoreh criticized the North for conducting tests that violate UNSC resolutions while the world is tackling the coronavirus situation.57 In addition, the editorial expressed regret since this occurred despite the postponement of US-ROK joint military exercises due to the coronavirus situation and in consideration of the North’s demands. Hankyoreh stated that the North may have conducted such tests to pressure Trump to return to talks. Therefore, it urged the Trump administration to prepare a realistic solution and return to dialogue. Kyunghayng on March 3 urged North Korea to focus on containing the spread of COVID-19 rather than raising military tensions.58 It warned that North Korea could face difficulties once an outbreak occurred since there would be difficulty in securing health supplies. Therefore, it stated that North and South Korea should join forces to tackle this situation. Although health care cooperation should be conducted through official channels, the editorial also suggested that this could be done behind closed doors.