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South Korea protests Japanese travel curbs as coronavirus ignites diplomatic row

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea issued a strongly worded protest on Friday against Japan’s decision to quarantine South Korean visitors for two weeks, as coronavirus containment measures ignited a fresh diplomatic row between the Asian nations.

South Korean soldiers in protective gear sanitize a street at a shopping district in Seoul, South Korea, March 6, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Japan joined the list of almost 100 countries that have imposed restrictions on South Korean travelers, barring arrivals from highly affected areas starting on Saturday and ordering a two-week quarantine for those from other regions.

The South Korean foreign ministry said Japan’s ambassador would be summoned to explain Tokyo’s decision and receive a formal complaint. Seoul has previously summoned ambassadors from Vietnam and Singapore over similar travel restrictions.

“It is extremely regrettable Japan took this unreasonable and excessive step without sufficient prior consultation with us, and we strongly urge immediate reconsideration,” it said.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Seoul would respond with countermeasures, although he gave no details on what actions could be taken.

The presidential Blue House discussed the issue at a meeting of its National Security Council, an official said.

The row came as the number of new cases in South Korea, the country with the biggest outbreak of the flu-like virus outside China, fell to 196 from 760 the previous day, for a total of 6,284 infections. The death toll rose by seven to 42, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said fewer new cases were being counted as authorities had almost completed testing more than 200,000 followers of a church in the southeastern city of Daegu at the center of South Korea’s outbreak.

“It is difficult to predict future developments because there are secondary and tertiary infections happening around the country involving them,” Kim told reporters.

Officials are scheduled to provide updated numbers later on Friday.

Japan’s chief government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, defended the travel restrictions, which also apply to visitors from China.

“The decision was the result of a comprehensive review of the information available about the situation in other countries and the effects of other measures,” he said.

“I think the timing is appropriate.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has come under intense criticism for the government’s handling of the virus outbreak as Japan prepares to host the Tokyo Olympics in July.

The number of South Koreans visiting Japan fell nearly 26% last year from 2018 to 5.6 million, the first drop since 2011 when Japan was hit by an earthquake and nuclear disaster, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Japan and South Korea have had difficult relations since Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula. Last year Tokyo slapped trade curbs on South Korea and South Koreans responded with a boycott on Japanese goods and services.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Stephen Coates

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