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Park postpones U.S. trip over MERS crisis

President Park Geun-hye has decided to delay her trip to the United States scheduled for later this week as part of efforts to assuage the public’s deepening fears over the Middle East respiratory syndrome, Cheong Wa Dae said Wednesday.

“To assure the public from growing MERS fears, the president has decided to postpone her trip to the U.S. to look after the people and bring an end to the MERS outbreak,” said senior press secretary Kim Sung-woo.

“Because the people’s safety is her top priority, she will delay the trip to the U.S. and will stay to dispel the public fear,” Kim added.

The decision came after a phone call between Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier in the morning, according to Cheong Wa Dae officials.

The South Korean foreign minister has sought the understanding of his U.S. counterpart and agreed to reschedule the trip at the earliest and most convenient time in the future for both.

Park was to leave on Sunday for a six-day trip to Washington and Houston, which was to include a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Senior press secretary Kim Sung-woo announces President Park Geun-hye’s decision to postpone visit to the U.S. Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Senior press secretary Kim Sung-woo announces President Park Geun-hye’s decision to postpone visit to the U.S. Wednesday. (Yonhap)

The White House responded that Obama is willing to host the summit with her and will try to cooperate with South Korea to stop MERS.

“President Obama looks forward to welcoming President Park to the White House at a mutually convenient time in the future to discuss the U.S.-Korea alliance and the critical role it plays in assuring regional stability and security,” said White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey, according to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

“As just one example of this partnership, the United States is working closely with our Korean partners to support their response to the MERS cases in South Korea,” he said.

Her trip was seen as crucial in seeking to reaffirm the alliance with the U.S. as inter-Korean tension remains high. The Seoul government has also received increasing calls to bolster its diplomatic stance in light of the tightening alliance between the U.S. and Japan.

The president, however, was facing growing calls to delay her trip as the country struggled to contain the disease that has killed nine so far. As of Wednesday afternoon, 108 patients are confirmed of MERS while 3,439 are being monitored.

Authorities have shown confidence in containing the disease, saying that all of the confirmed cases were hospital-related. But speculations have been spiking on the possibility of the virus being transmitted to the general community following a number of cases where patients were moved around before being confirmed of having the disease.

Education offices have canceled classes at schools, kindergartens and day care centers in some parts of the country in the face of parents’ demands to ensure their children’s safety.

Calls have also been mounting for the president to take a leading role in the government’s all-out efforts to combat the disease.

On Monday, the president delegated special authorities to a task force of civilian experts and Health Ministry officials to control overall quarantine measures. A separate pangovernmental organization was also launched to provide necessary administrative support to handle the crisis.

Observers said Park may have delayed the trip as it remains uncertain if South Korea will be able to stop MERS from spreading to the general public. The pending confirmation of her prime minister-designate may have also played a part in delaying the U.S. trip, they added.

Premier-designate Hwang Kyo-ahn completed his three-day confirmation hearing Wednesday as the opposition remained opposed to the prosecutor-turned-justice minister, citing alleged ethical lapses and political bias.

The president is also under growing pressure with her performance ratings dropping rapidly in recent surveys.

According to Realmeter, her approval rating sank 4.4 percentage points to 40.3 percent last week. More than 50 percent of respondents said they would want her to delay the trip to the U.S. while 39 percent said that the president should go as planned, according to the pollster.

By Cho Chung-un (