South Korean evacuees from Wuhan welcomed to quarantine centers

ASAN/SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) - Hundreds of South Koreans flown home on a charter flight from China were greeted with welcome signs on Friday as they arrived at quarantine centers where nearby residents had staged vehement protests only a day before.

Workers in traditional Korean costumes wear protective masks to prevent contracting coronavirus during a reenactment of the Royal Guards Changing Ceremony in front of Deoksu Palace in Seoul, South Korea, January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Heo Ran

The 368 South Koreans were transported to two facilities in Asan and Jincheon, cities about 80 km (50 miles) south of the capital Seoul, where they will be isolated. The aircraft carrying the evacuees from Wuhan, the epicenter of a virus outbreak in China, landed in Seoul earlier in the morning.

On Friday night, a second chartered flight departed Seoul for Wuhan, with plans to evacuate around 350 more South Korean citizens from the city and return on Saturday.

South Korea also reported five new confirmed cases of the virus on Friday, bringing the total to 11, including two people who returned from Wuhan via the eastern Chinese port city of Qingdao last week.

The quarantine plan triggered a strong backlash among nearby residents, with some people throwing eggs and yelling expletives on Thursday at senior officials who visited to try to defuse their anger.

Several hundred police officers were on hand at the facilities in Asan and Jincheon, but there was no major rally.

As the buses carrying the evacuees arrived in Asan escorted by police cars and disinfection trucks, some residents held signs saying “Hope you have a good rest in Asan” and “We will pray for the people suffering from the new coronavirus.”

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However, one angry protester ripped apart a welcome banner put up by a local civic group earlier in the day.

The government had said none of the evacuees exhibited any symptoms before departure, but one person could not board the plane due to fever after a final check at Wuhan airport, while 18 were sent to hospital immediately upon arrival, vice health minister Kim Gang-lip said.

“There were different screening standards between China and us, and we conducted another check aboard the plane and put those who were showing symptoms in separate space on the second floor of the plane,” Kim told a briefing.


“The other 350 will be sent to temporary lodging facilities where medical staff will provide daily quarantine and medical assistance for 14 days under thorough control without going out or receiving guests.”

The South Korean government has said it will sternly respond to any “fake news” about the disease, and it distributed infographics on Twitter on Friday to dispel some unverified rumors.

In one image, it refuted a claim that a person can contract the virus by eating Chinese kimchi, saying it is an “extremely low” risk for the virus to survive lengthy import procedures even if any products contain it.

The outbreak has prompted North Korea to declare a state emergency, though it is unclear whether there are any confirmed cases in the isolated nation.

The two Koreas opened a new hotline between Seoul and Pyongyang after they agreed to temporarily close their joint liaison office in the North’s border city until virus concerns are eased, the South’s Unification Ministry said on Friday.

The North also informed the South via the hotline that it has decided to postpone plans to remove South Korean facilities at its Mount Kumgang resort next month to prevent a virus outbreak, the ministry said.

Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul and Daewoung Kim in Asan; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Kim Coghill and Gareth Jones