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Korean experience of combating coronavirus



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

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East Asia

High time for India to Reconsider the One-China Policy



Sino-Indian bilateral relations have seen major challenges in the recent years, beginning with the Doklam crisis to the current pandemic situation. The sugar-coated rhetoric of Beijing proved to be mere duplicity after tensions erupted along the Line of Actual Control where soldiers of both the states clashed in mid-2020, resulting in the martyrdom of several Indian jawans including a commanding officer. The other side also saw several casualties, though Beijing has kept the actual count under wraps. More recently, China suspended the state-run Sichuan Airlines cargo planes carrying medical supplies to India for 15 days citing the deteriorating situation in India due to COVID-19. This was after the Chinese government promised all the necessary help for India to battle the pandemic. 

The People’s Republic of China under the leadership of Xi Jinping has been maintaining an aggressive posture with India even while making calls for ‘maintaining peace’. Its support for all-weather friend Pakistan has attained new peaks when it proclaimed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor under the Belt and Road Initiative passing through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, a territory claimed by India, despite New Delhi’s staunch opposition. It is in the light of all these events that the calls of the strategic community in India to review the recognition of One China policy has gained some attention. 

India’s Sensitivity versus China’s Duplicity  

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the Communist Party of China (CPC) claims itself as the only representative of the Chinese nation including the territories of Tibet and Taiwan among others. Any country having formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, also known as Republic of China shall be seen by China as challenging its sovereignty. The same parameter applies to any country recognizing Tibet or similar ‘autonomous regions’ under the Chinese control. This is known as the ‘One China Principle’ or ‘One China Policy’. India was one of the first countries to recognize the PRC in 1949 after the civil war as well as to accord recognition to its occupation of Tibet. However, China claims the whole of India’s Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet’, a claim that India has always rebuffed. Moreover, it occupies Aksai Chin which it captured during the 1962 war as well as the Shaksgam valley, ceded illegally to it by Pakistan in 1963.

Even after the war and the re-establishment of cordial bilateral relations, China has continued to repeat its illegitimate claims and nibble into India’s territory.  India’s protests fell on deaf ears and this is despite India recognizing the One China Policy. India stopped mentioning the policy since 2010 in its public announcements and publications, however, without repealing it. Taking undue advantage of this China pays little concern to Indian sentiments. This view in India, to challenge China’s One China Policy, has been strengthened by aggressive diplomatic postures of China as well as its regular incursions along the disputed border while continuing to support Islamabad on all fronts – overtly and covertly, encircling India. 

The government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused to give in to the bullying attempts by China by allowing the Army to go ahead with offensive countermeasures against Chinese incursions in 2017 as well as in 2020, in addition to taking measures including banning dozens of Chinese mobile applications. It has also started actively taking part in initiatives like Quadrilateral Dialogue as well as strengthening relations with ASEAN states. However, a dominant section within the strategic community in India feel that these measures are not enough to knock China into its senses. 

Challenging the One China Policy 

The most significant among the measures suggested in this regard has been to review India’s adherence to the One China policy. In an atmosphere where China does not recognize the One India policy comprising of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territories, experts argue the need of reciprocity. Initiatives such as providing greater global visibility and access for Tibetans including the 14th Dalai Lama, using Buddhist history and traditions as a trump card since New Delhi has the advantage of having the Dalai Lama on its side, provides legitimacy for India unlike China. India can facilitate the appointment of the next Dalai Lama and extend protection for the existing and the next Dalai Lama. The repeal of the recognition for Chinese occupation of Tibet can also send major tremors in Beijing but that seems to be a distant dream. The new democratic Tibetan government under President Penpa Tsering should be given greater official acknowledgment and publicity. India has already taken small steps in this regard by acknowledging the involvement of the elite Special Frontier Force (SFF), majorly comprising of exiled Tibetans, in a game changing operation to shift the balance against China during the recent border crisis. The funeral of an SFF commando attended by a Member of Parliament and leader from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Ram Madhav was an overt signaling to China that Indians are not refraining from openly recognizing Tibetan contributions to the state of India. Another sensitive issue for China is the Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslims being allegedly tortured and deprived of their basic human rights in the ‘re-education camps’ by the CPC and a state sponsored genocide being carried out against them. India can take up the issue vigorously at international forums with like-minded countries, increasing the pressure on China. Similarly, the pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong, pro-Mongol movements such as the protest against Mandarin imposition in the school curriculum of Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, can also be encouraged or given moral support. India, a country which upholds its virtue of unity in diversity must take a strong stand against the ‘cultural assimilation’ or ‘liberation’ as the Chinese say. This is nothing but cultural destruction imposed by China using the rhetoric of ‘not being civilised’ and branding the non-Han population as barbaric in China and the regions it illegally occupies.

India can also stir the hornet’s nest by engaging more formally with the Taiwanese leadership. Taipei has always been approached by New Delhi keeping in mind the sensitivities of China in mind. However, it does not have to do so for a power that bullies both the nations with constant threats and provocations by its action. It is a well-known fact that Taiwan is a center of excellence in terms of the semi-conductor industry and high-end technology. Engaging more with Taiwan will not only hurt Beijing, but also will help India counter the strategic advantage possessed by China in terms of being the major exporters of electronic goods and telecommunication hardware to India. India can also attain more self-sufficiency by boosting its own electronics industry using the Taiwanese semiconductor bases. India can use this leverage to shed its overdependence on China in critical sectors, balance the trade deficit to some extent, while also securing its networks from Chinese intelligence. India must also focus on working with the states having stake in the South China Sea such as Philippines and Malaysia who regularly face aggression in their airspace and Exclusive Economic Zones from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces and China’s maritime militia, questioning their territorial sovereignty, imposing the One China Policy. New Delhi must pressurize China by working with the western nations, whose legislators have openly declared support for the Tibetan President in exile, to question China’s occupation of Tibet and attempts at homogenizing the population. Long term measures and strategies will have to be sought to end the dependence on China while seeking alternatives and becoming self-reliant over time. 

However, India will face several serious challenges to implement the above-mentioned measures. There is a deep lack of mutual trust among major powers like USA, UK, France and Russia through whom India can build a coalition. The American President Joe Biden is seemingly interested in partly co-operating with China and has a softer stance unlike the former President Trump. Nevertheless, the QUAD is a welcome step in this regard and India must undertake a greater role in pressurizing China through such forums, albeit not openly. India also has a serious issue of possibly having to incur heavy economic losses on having to limit Chinese goods and investments and finding similarly cheap and easy alternatives. These fault lines are exactly what is being exploited by China to its advantage. Thus, the Indian state and its diplomacy has the heavy task of working between all these hurdles and taking China to task. However, since China seems remotely interested in settling the border disputes like it did with its post-Soviet neighbours in the previous decades and instead gauge pressure against India. So, New Delhi will have to pull up its sleeves to pay back China in the same coin.  

The views expressed are solely of the author.

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East Asia

Who would bell the China cat?



If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.

China’s tit-for-tat response

The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”

Bitter truths

Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20. 

Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.

India’s role

India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.

India’s main problem

Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.  

Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.

The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is  thrice  the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.

Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”

It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.

History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.

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East Asia

Xinjiang? A Minority Haven Or Hell



While the G7 meets under the shadow of Covid 19 and the leaders of the most prosperous nations on earth are focused on rebuilding their economies, a bloodless pogrom is being inflicted on a group of people on the other side of the world.

In this new era, killing people is wasteful and could bring the economic wrath of the rest of the world.  No, it is better to brainwash them, to re-educate them, to destroy their culture, to force them to mold themselves into the alien beings who have invaded their land in the name of progress, and who take the best new jobs that sprout with economic development.  Any protest at these injustices are treated severely.

Amnesty International has published a new 160-page report this week on Xinjiang detailing the horrors being perpetrated on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  Amnesty has simultaneously announced a campaign on their behalf.

Persecution, mass imprisonment in what can best be described as concentration camps, intensive interrogation and torture are actions that come under the definition of ‘crimes against humanity’.  More than 50 people who spent time in these camps contributed first-hand accounts that form the substance of the report.  It is not easy reading for these people have themselves suffered maltreatment even torture in many instances.

The UN has claimed that 1.5 million Muslims (Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks) are in these internment camps and China’s claims of re-education camps made to sound as benign as college campuses are patently false.

People report being interviewed in police stations and then transferred to the camps.  Their interrogation was frequently conducted on ‘tiger chairs’:   The interviewee is strapped to a metal chair with leg irons and hands cuffed in such a manner that the seating position soon becomes exceedingly painful.  Some victims were hooded; some left that way for 24 hours or more, and thus were forced to relieve themselves, even defecate, where they sat.  Beatings and sleep deprivation were also common.

Activities were closely monitored and they were mostly forbidden to speak to other internees including cell mates.  Trivial errors such as responding to guards or other officials in their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese resulted in punishment.

Amnesty’s sources reported the routine was relentless.  Wake up at 5am.  Make bed — it had to be perfect.  A flag-raising and oath-taking ceremony before breakfast at 7 am.  Then to the classroom.  Back to the canteen for lunch.  More classes after.  Then dinner.  Then more classes before bed.  At night two people had to be on duty for two hours monitoring the others leaving people exhausted.  You never see sunlight while you are there, they said.  That was because they were never taken outside as is done in most prisons.

The re-education requires them to disavow Islam, stop using their native language, give up cultural practices, and become Mandarin-speaking ‘Chinese’.

Such are the freedoms in Xi Jinping’s China.  If China’s other leaders prior to Mr. Xi effected moderate policies in concert with advisers, it is no longer the case.  Mr. Xi works with a small group of like minds.  He has also removed the two-term or eight-year limit on being president.  President for life as some leaders like to call themselves, then why not Mr. Xi.  His anti-democratic values make him eminently qualified. 

An enlightened leader might have used the colorful culture of these minorities to attract tourists and show them the diversity of China.  Not Mr. Xi, who would rather have everyone march in lockstep to a colorless utopia reminiscent of the grey clothing and closed-collar jackets of the Maoist era. 

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