The coronavirus outbreak has ignited a diplomatic row between Japan and South Korea, after Tokyo said it would quarantine all passengers arriving from the country, which has the highest number of Covid-19 cases outside China.
In response, the government in Seoul on Friday called the move “unreasonable, excessive and extremely regrettable”, threatening retaliatory measures and accusing Japan of not dealing with its own outbreak properly.
From Saturday, anyone arriving in Japan from South Korea will be placed in two weeks’ quarantine at government-designated sites, the prime minister, Shinzo Abe said on Thursday, amid criticism of his handling of the outbreak just months before the country is due to host the Olympics.
“It is extremely regrettable Japan took this unreasonable and excessive step without sufficient prior consultation with us, and we strongly urge immediate reconsideration,” the South Korean foreign ministry said in a statement. Seoul said it would summon Japan’s ambassador to explain the measure, hinting that Tokyo had been motivated by politics rather than a desire to contain the spread of the respiratory illness.
“We can’t help but question whether Japan has other motives than containing the outbreak,” the statement said, without elaborating.
South Korea’s criticisms found an echo from the World Health Organisation, which said on Thursday night that some countries were not showing “the level of political commitment” needed to “match the level of the threat we all face”.
Although he didn’t name any culprits, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters: “This is not a drill. This epidemic is a threat for every country, rich and poor.”
Japan’s chief government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, defended the decision saying it was “the result of a comprehensive review of the information available about the situation in other countries and the effects of other measures. I think the timing is appropriate.”
The new measures also applied to visitors from China where new cases rose by 143 on Friday. Another 30 deaths were recorded.
Across the Pacific, as the outbreak continues to spread in the US, the Trump administration was also forced onto the defensive, amid criticism of its approach to the virus which has now seen the number of cases rise from 15 to 233 in the past week. Twelve people have died, 11 of them in Washington state.
The president, who last week claimed that the risk in the US was “very low” and that the number of cases would be zero in “a few days”, faced questions at an election town hall event in Scranton, Pennsylvania on Thursday night. His vice-president, Mike Pence, who is charge of the US response, admitted that the country did not have enough testing kits to meet demand.
Asked if the virus would hurt the economy, Trump admitted for the first time that “it might have an impact” before declaring: “It’s going to all work out. Everybody has to be calm. We have plans for every single possibility and I think that’s what we have to do. We hope it doesn’t last too long.”
Trump’s hopes for a quick recovery will be tested again on Friday with futures trading pointing to another day of losses on US stock markets. The Dow Jones industrial average lost nearly 1,000 points on Thursday and that sparked another wretched day of trade in Asia on Friday with the Nikkei in Tokyo leading the way down with a drop of more than 3%. The Vix volatility index, also known as the “fear index”, spiked 24% to 39.62 and investors continued to rush into the safe haven of US government bonds.
Japan’s stock market is now at a six-month low and the economy faces a significant hit from the new travel restrictions. Big-spending Chinese visitors are a major plank of Shinzo Abe’s plan to revitalise the economy.
But Japan will also have to deal with the diplomatic fallout from South Korea. Seoul’s presidential office said the country was starting to see progress from its “transparent and active quarantine efforts” to contain the illness, contrasting it with Japan’s approach.
“While our country is sternly dealing with Covid-19 under its scientific and transparent quarantine system that is highly evaluated by the rest of the world, Japan is losing its faith from the international community because of its ambiguous and passive quarantine efforts,” the office said in a statement, according to Yonhap news agency.
South Korea’s national security council said it would consider countermeasures against Tokyo. Those could include designating Japan as a risk area for infectious diseases and placing its own restrictions on travellers from Japan. South Korea has not, though, imposed corresponding measures on more than 90 other countries that have banned or restricted visitors from the country.
Japan’s new quarantine requirement would create havoc for thousands of Koreans who had planned to visit Japan, said Park Chul-hyun, a media columnist based in Tokyo who cancelled a three-day trip to Seoul for fear of having to go into quarantine on his return.
“There are thousands of South Koreans arriving in Tokyo on a daily basis and I bet a majority of them have called off their trips,” Park told Agence France-Presse, dismissing the measure as a “pure performance” ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 organisers have insisted the Games will open as planned on 24 July, but speculation is growing that they will have to be cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Japan’s quarantine move has become the source of added friction between Japan and South Korea, whose relations have long been soured by the legacy of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula, its use of Korean women as wartime sex slaves and rival claims to islands in the Sea of Japan, which Koreans call the East Sea.
Last year, tensions stemming from Japan’s use of forced labourers from the Korean peninsula before and during the war led to a trade dispute that also damaged tourism, cultural ties and security cooperation.