The Republic of Korea was one of the first countries that the coronavirus spread to, and for quite some time the country held the second place in the world in the number of recorded cases of COVID-19 infection. South Korea has since slid to the 26th place, however, with the number of daily infections not exceeding 10 – a pretty impressive result for a country that has found itself in the epicenter of a pandemic. The South Korean experience in fighting the epidemic was discussed by a panel of experts meeting at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).
The first case of COVID-19 infection in South Korea was registered on January 20, and a mere 30 cases had been recorded nationally by mid-February. No restrictive measures were taken, with the authorities just advising people to avoid mass gatherings. Still, on February 16, members of the Shincheonji religious group attended a massive prayer in the country’s third biggest city of Daegu. According to representatives of this church, which is considered a totalitarian sect in South Korea, 1,290 people attended the service, but investigators later determined that the actual figure was around 10,000. Moreover, it turned out that 42 members of the sect had visited China’s Wuhan in January. As a result, on February 29, the number of per day infections recorded in the south of the Korean Peninsula spiked to 900. According to the authorities, 3,526 cases of COVID-19 infection were confirmed nationally by March 1. According to Lee Sang-min, a researcher at the Hanguk University of Foreign Studies’ Institute of Russian Studies in Seoul, and a visiting researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, 60 percent (5,200) of coronavirus infections in South Korea are due to the activities of the Shincheonji church.
On April 5, South Korea’s coronavirus infection rates started to fall. In a matter of just four weeks, the Korean authorities managed to bring the number of daily cases down to 70, and presently their number does not exceed 10. Today, the overall situation in South Korea is fairly stable with 10,801 cases of COVID-19 infection, 9,217 recoveries and 252 deaths having so far been registered in the country.
According to Alexander Vorontsov, head of the Korea and Mongolia department, member of the scientific council of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, and a Russian International Affairs Council expert, one of the reasons why South Korea managed so quickly to check the spread of the virus is the country’s advanced health care system and high level of technological progress. From the very outset of the COVID-19 epidemic, South Korean specialists developed special public monitoring programs: if a person with coronavirus or someone suspected of being infected left the house, information about his movements was transmitted in real time to doctors and police and, most importantly, to his or her neighbors warning them to avoid contact with that person. Dedicated applications were also introduced allowing people to maintain round-the-clock online communication with doctors.
“The 3-T system has proved its effectiveness in combating the virus: testing, tracking (observation) and treatment. Additionally, the government established a wide-ranging system of an early diagnosis of the disease. Up until mid-March, South Korea led the world in terms of the level of testing with over 15,000 free tests performed each day,” Vorontsov emphasized.
Besides, South Korea has made good use of its experience of combating previous coronavirus epidemics, such as SARS and MERS. Alexander Vorontsov said that in 2015, the South Korean Health Ministry was given broad extrajudicial powers, uncommon for Western democracies, to collect personal data of confirmed and potential patients during periods of epidemics. During the outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), this proved highly effective allowing, in particular, the creation of an extensive infrastructure for monitoring the spread of the disease and the movements of those infected.
Lee Sang-min, for his part, noted that the South Korean authorities have tried not to infringe on the principles of democracy that the country has been building for more than 30 years. Therefore, they did not cancel international flights (selectively), nor did they close down restaurants, barbershops and stores.
“The South Korean government was immediately ready to quickly address the problem uncompromisingly, but openly, with due respect for the letter and spirit of the law and the citizens’ right to free movement,” the expert noted.
Lee Sang-min added that by mid-April, the situation in the country had improved to an extent that the authorities decided to hold parliamentary elections on April 15.
Alexander Vorontsov noted that “holding elections amid a pandemic is unprecedented. From the standpoint of the global situation with the epidemic, [South] Korea really took an extremely risky step: when they decided to go ahead with the elections, the country had not yet seen any decline in infection, but apparently they were looking to the future.”
He also mentioned as an interesting phenomenon public opinion changes in South Korea. When the epidemic began, South Korea, observing democratic norms, did not impose quarantine, kept open its borders with China and even provided humanitarian assistance to Beijing in the form of face masks and medical equipment. This provoked questions and even anti-government sentiment among the population, especially the opposition. President Moon Jae-in was accused of pro-Chinese sentiments and a whole campaign was launched to collect signatures for his impeachment (activists managed to collect 1.2 million signatures). Such practice is not new for South Korea, whose previous head of state, Park Geun-hye, was removed from office on charges of corruption and disclosure of classified documents.
However, when the measures taken by the government worked and people saw how competently it fulfills its obligations, the situation changed. In parliamentary elections that were held, setting a record for turnout (66%) for the first time since 1996 (and this amid a pandemic!), the pro-presidential Toburo Democratic Party garnered a hefty 60 percent of the vote.
As someone with first-hand knowledge of the events, Lee Sang-min said that maximum precautions had been taken at polling stations with everyone wearing face masks and gloves and keeping a distance. All polling places were disinfected and everyone had his or her temperature measured.
“When the government effectively performs in a crisis, then people have no choice but to support it, so we can say that the coronavirus played a big role in the political life of the country. I think the ruling party would have won anyway, but the virus ensured a record turnout and number of votes,” he emphasized.
According to Lee Sang-min, although the pandemic did not predetermine the fate of the ruling party, it considerably strengthened its position nonetheless – something that can’t be said about the country’s economy.
“The economic situation in [South] Korea is the same as elsewhere in the world. In April, exports of goods dropped by 27 percent. The negative prospects for economic growth in Korea are lower than in other countries, but, according to experts, the pace of economic development will still be around 1.9 percent, which is an extremely bad showing for the country. Today, we should not strive for economic growth, the paradigm should be shifted to the safety and well-being of people,” he said. To date, the government has approved four packages of financial incentives for small and medium-sized businesses (approximately 25,000 rubles per capita).
The situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
While speaking about South Korea’s successes, experts could not ignore the unique experience of North Korea. According to the latest WHO data, not a single case of infection has so far been recorded in the DPRK. The Korean Peninsula and the Korean nation have obviously demonstrated and implemented highly successful methods of combating the virus. Moreover, they have done it completely different ways: South Korea, as a country integrated into many international processes, opted for an open and compromise path, while North Korea chose the method of total quarantine and closing of borders.
“The experience of the DPRK is absolutely one of a kind. It is the only country in the world that, finding itself in the epicenter of a pandemic, prevented the coronavirus from making its way into the county. In my opinion, the North Korean leadership managed to make the best use of its advantages. Everyone knows that the country is poor, with a low standard of living, has long been under sanctions, and that its health care system is completely undeveloped: the acute shortage of medicines and medical equipment is compounded by a lack of funding. Under such circumstances, the North Korean government realized that if the virus got in fighting it would simply be mission impossible,” Alexander Vorontsov emphasized.
As a result, while the rest of the world was just starting to look into the problem of coronavirus and its occurrence, the North Korean leaders acted with fantastic speed: on January 21, they sealed the country’s borders and imposed harsh restrictions. In addition, a strict period of medical observation of diplomatic personnel was introduced from February 1 to 15, subsequently extended to March 3 due to violation of restrictions by members of several diplomatic missions during the initial quarantine period. The restrictions required foreigners to remain inside their missions at all times and use only one food store and medical facility in Pyongyang, where they were accompanied by specially-assigned North Korean representatives in order to rule out possible stops on the way by their vehicles.
According to Alexander Vorontsov, experts are now divided in their assessments of North Korea’s anti-virus effort. Some believe that the virus will make its way into the country anyway, and that North Korea will not be able to fight it. Others argue that the North Korean authorities will still be able to prevent infection with the use of ultra-strict isolation measures, but such a lengthy quarantine period will undermine the country’s already weak economy.
“My guess is that the DPRK has experience of surviving in the most adverse economic conditions. I believe that extremely tough as the measures they are taking are, they are still justified. Preventing the virus from entering the country is an overarching task, which they have successfully coped with so far,” Alexander Vorontsov noted.
From our partner International Affairs
Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China
There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.
Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.
By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.
The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.
China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.
Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.
The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.
A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.
Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question
The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.
Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.
Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.
However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.
Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.
During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.
Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.
Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.
If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.
From our partner RIAC
Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?
Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.
One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.
In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.
To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.
The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.
Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.
Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.
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