Coronavirus heightens tensions between Japan and South Korea

SEOUL, March 6 (UPI) — South Korean government officials lashed out at Japan a day after Tokyo announced it would quarantine all travelers coming from the country, which is fighting a COVID-19 outbreak that reached 6,593 cases on Friday afternoon.

Seoul’s national security council met on Friday and “expressed their strong regret for the Japanese government’s measures to strengthen restrictions on entry to Koreans,” the presidential Blue House said in a statement.

The NSC criticized the “unfair measures” that Japan took “without prior consultation with the South Korean government,” and said it was going to “review the necessary countermeasures, including those based on reciprocity.”

The Blue House statement noted that South Korea’s “scientific and transparent quarantine system has been highly evaluated by the world,” while claiming that Japan has lost the trust of the international community through its “opaque and passive countermeasures.”

Japan has faced criticism for its response to the spread of the novel coronavirus, in particular for its handling of the virus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was quarantined at Yokohama Port in early February and saw 10 COVID-19 cases soar to over 700.

Earlier on Friday, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement in which it expressed “deep regret” over Japan’s decision and warned of countermeasures including reciprocal steps.

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul have been strained since a South Korean Supreme Court ruling in 2018 found that Japanese companies must pay compensation to Korean victims of wartime forced labor. Tokyo responded by removing Seoul from a “white list” of favored trading partners, triggering protests and a boycott of Japanese products across South Korea.

As of Friday, 102 countries and territories are either barring or quarantining visitors coming from South Korea, according to the ministry.

The number of confirmed cases in South Korea rose to 6,593, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Friday, with some 90 percent of patients concentrated around the southeastern city of Daegu and its neighboring North Gyeongsang province.

There were 309 new cases confirmed over the first 16 hours of Friday, following 518 new cases reported on Thursday.

The KCDC said Friday that over 62 percent of the total infections are connected to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a controversial new religious movement that was at the heart of the outbreak.

The number of reported cases began skyrocketing after a 61-year-old woman who is a member of the Shincheonji church in Daegu was confirmed as the country’s 31st COVID-19 patient on Feb. 17. She had attended services at the church both before and after exhibiting symptoms, health authorities said.

There have been 42 deaths in South Korea due to the coronavirus, primarily elderly patients with underlying illnesses, while 108 recovered patients have been released from hospitals.

South Korea continues to test for the coronavirus on a scale that dwarfs most other countries. Health authorities have tested over 158,000 patients so far, the KCDC reported on Friday.

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