Troops disinfect the airport in Daegu, the South Korean city hardest hit by the novel coronavirus. Photo: AFP

Tokyo’s Covid-19 countermeasures have sparked anger and a diplomatic dispute with Seoul.

Even a global health scare is not enough to keep one of Asia’s most virulent enmities quiet for long, as, on Friday, a diplomatic dispute flared up between South Korea and Japan after Japan said that it would quarantine arriving Chinese and South Korean travelers.

Tokyo’s plan triggered an angry response from South Korea on Friday, with comments from both the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council warning that Seoul might take “corresponding measures.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called, before a cabinet-level task force late Thursday, for visitors from the two countries to undergo a two-week quarantine. According to Japanese media, the measures – which also include restricting flights from the two countries to just two airports nationwide and suspended visas issues to Chinese and South Korean nationals – take effect from March 9 to March 31.

On Friday, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha summoned Japanese Ambassador to Korea Tomita Koji.

It is “extremely regrettable” that Tokyo had “enforced the measures without prior notice,” Kang said, according to a press release from her ministry. “These measures are unfriendly and unscientific,” she said.

Kang also said that if Japan did not withdraw the measures, Korea would be forced to “come up with necessary countermeasures, including reciprocal measures.”

Viral pressures

More than 100 countries are banning or restricting the entry of South Korean travelers. So far, Seoul is not known to have retaliated against any. Both Seoul and Tokyo have come under domestic public pressures to ban visitors from China. Seoul has not enacted any such ban on China, only on visitors from hard-hit Hubei Province, nor has it enacted any ban on Japan.

China and South Korea are leading the world in numbers of identified Covid-19 cases. As of Friday, China reported 80,555 while Korea saw 6,593 cases. Japan, meanwhile, reports just 360, according to the interactive virus map collated by John Hopkins University.

However, South Korea – which has received kudos from media and professionals across the world for its high numbers of tests – is recording larger day-on-day increases than China. China reported 142 new cases and 102 suspected new cases on Friday, while South Korea’s number of new cases increased by 505 over the previous day (see chart below).

South Korea has received kudos from media and experts around the world for its large number of novel coronavirus tests and its efficient medical procedures, while netizens have accused Japan of having a lower number of cases simply because it is not testing widely enough.

That stance was reflected in an official Seoul communique on Friday.

“Japan is distrusted by the international community for its opaque and passive protection measures in light of the fact that Korea has strictly controlled and controlled Covid-19 through a world-class scientific and transparent system,” a brief referencing the National Security Council, that was sent by the presidential mansion to foreign reporters in Seoul, read.

However, Japan has not suffered the kind of “Black Swan” event that Korea suffered – a mass outbreak in a controversial Christian sect in the country’s southeast. Japan’s death rate also suggests a far lower overall number, regardless of test protocols.

There is intense debate underway worldwide about the virus’ death rate. There have been 2,931 deaths just in Hubei Province in China, 40 deaths in South Korea and six in Japan.

Troubled ties

For three decades, Seoul and Tokyo have engaged in diplomatic spats centering on Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945, and the related issues of reparation and apology. Those disputes leaped from the diplomatic space into the economic and security spheres last year, but the dispute has quietened down in recent months.

A shadow currently hanging over the two countries is whether a South Korean court will liquidate assets seized from Japanese firms in South Korea to compensate wartime forced laborers. Japan insists that issue was handled as part of a diplomatic normalization treaty in 1968, with a compensation package worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Tokyo has warned that if the asset liquidation goes ahead, it will retaliate strongly. 

In this atmosphere, Seoul’s foreign ministry said it was possible Japan’s Thursday decision was “intended as something other than for quarantine purposes.”

South Korean confirmed Covid-19 cases

Jan. 20: First case

Tues Feb 18: Woman connected to Shincheonji Church tests positive

Wed Feb. 19: Total 51 cases.

Thurs Feb. 20: New cases: 53. Total 104

Friday Feb. 21: New cases: 100. Total 204

Saturday Feb. 22: New cases: 229. Total 433

Sunday Feb. 23: New cases: 169. Total 602

Monday Feb. 24:  New cases: 231. Total 833

Tuesday Feb. 25: New cases: 144. Total: 977

Wednesday Feb. 26: New cases: 284. Total: 1261

Thursday Feb 27: New cases: 505. Total: 1,766

Friday: Feb 28: New cases: 571.Total: 2,337

Saturday 29 Feb:  New cases: 813. Total: 3,150

Sunday 1 March: New cases: 586. Total: 3,736

Monday 2 March: New cases: 549. Total: 4,335

Tuesday 3 March: New cases: 851. Total: 5,186

Wednesday 4 March: New cases: 435. Total: 5,621

Thursday 5 March: New cases: 467. Total: 6,088

Friday 6 March: New cases:  505. Total 6,593

Data: Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Note: The KCDC releases figures at various times of the day. The above chart is collated from figures released at close of business, daily.