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South Korea summons Japan envoy over travel curbs in coronavirus row

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea summoned Japan’s envoy on Friday to protest against its neighbour’s decision to quarantine South Korean visitors for two weeks, and threatened reprisals, as the bid to rein in a coronavirus ignited a new row, following a trade spat last year.

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 is among almost 100 nations to impose curbs on travellers from South Korea, which has suffered 42 deaths and 6,593 infections in the biggest outbreak outside China, where the virus emerged late last year.

It has barred entry to visitors from highly affected areas in South Korea, and ordered two weeks in quarantine for others.

“If the Japanese government does not withdraw their decision…we cannot help but devise necessary countermeasures, including reciprocal measures,” Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told Japanese ambassador Koji Tomita.

She condemned Japan’s decision to impose the quarantine without sufficient consultation or prior notice, despite Seoul’s efforts to persuade it against travel restrictions.

“We express deep regret towards the unjust measures taken by the Japanese government,” Kang added.

Speaking through a translator, Tomita responded that Kang should be well aware of the worsening situation.

“The next two weeks are a critical time period that will determine whether or not we can put an end to COVID-19,” he said, referring to the illness caused by the virus, which first emerged in China late last year.

Seoul has earlier protested to the envoys of Southeast Asian neighbours Singapore and Vietnam over similar curbs.

Tokyo faced “mistrust from the international community due to its opaque, passive” response to the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security Council (NSC) said after a meeting at the presidential Blue House earlier in the day.

“We will explore necessary countermeasures based on principles of reciprocity,” it said in a statement.

Japan’s chief government spokesman 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,” said Yoshihide Suga.

“I think the timing is appropriate.”

The number of new cases of the flu-like virus fell to 505 in South Korea on Friday, from 760 the previous day, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

U.S. Forces Korea reported a new case, for a total of seven, among soldiers, employees or people related to the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said authorities had almost finished tests on more than 200,000 followers of a church in southeastern Daegu city at the centre of the outbreak.

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

Slideshow (6 Images)

More than 90% of South Korea’s infections were in Daegu and nearby North Gyeongsang province. Smaller clusters elsewhere include a new one reported on Friday at a hospital in Seongnam, southeast of the capital.

The number of South Korean visitors to Japan fell nearly 26% last year to 5.6 million, the first drop since Japan’s tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011, Japanese tourism officials say.

Difficult relations between Japan and South Korea date from the former’s occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Last year Tokyo slapped trade curbs on South Korea, which responded with a boycott on Japanese goods and services.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul. Additional reporting by Kevin Buckland and Kaori Kaneko in Tokyo. Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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