SEOUL: South Korea issued a strongly worded protest on Friday (Mar 6) 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.
Japan joined the list of almost 100 countries that have imposed restrictions on South Korean travellers, 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.
After a meeting at the presidential Blue House, the National Security Council (NSC) issued a statement saying Tokyo faced "mistrust from the international community due to its opaque, passive" response to the coronavirus outbreak.
"We will explore necessary countermeasures based on principles of reciprocity," it said.
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 on Thursday announced that foreign arrivals who have recently been in China or South Korea would be required to spend 14 days in quarantine.
Seoul's foreign ministry urged Tokyo to reconsider the "irrational and overbearing" measure in a statement.
"We can't help but question whether Japan has other motives than containing the outbreak," it added.
Seoul could take countermeasures, it signalled, saying it was exploring "all possible options" to ensure the safety of South Koreans.
Japan's quarantine announcement was already affecting "thousands of South Koreans", 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," said Park, criticising the measure as a "pure performance" ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
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.
The US Forces Korea reported a new case for a total of seven among soldiers, employees or people related to the roughly 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea.
Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said authorities had almost completed testing more than 200,000 followers of a church in the southeastern city of Daegu at the centre 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.
More than 90 per cent of South Korea's cases are in the southern city of Daegu - with more than 4,600 cases confirmed there - and the neighbouring North Gyeongsang province.
Most of the country's infections are linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious sect often condemned as a cult.
A 61-year-old female member of the sect in Daegu developed symptoms on Feb 10 and attended at least four services before being diagnosed.
Scores of events - from K-pop concerts to sports seasons - have been cancelled or postponed over the contagion, with school and kindergarten breaks extended by three weeks nationwide.