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(News Focus) Park's delay of U.S. visit highlights calls for public safety

All Headlines 21:22 June 10, 2015

By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL, June 10 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye's surprise move to delay a crucial U.S. trip underscored her new determination to listen to what the people want: public safety.

She had been under political pressure to put off the visit scheduled for this weekend and instead take the lead in ending the spread of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus that has killed nine South Koreans.

The last-minute delay of a U.S. trip -- unprecedented by a serving South Korean president -- showed the urgency in containing the virus at the cost of what critics claim is a diplomatic faux pas.

U.S. President Barack Obama also has a track record of calling off overseas trips. In 2013, Obama canceled his trip to Asia -- the region to which he pivoted -- because of the U.S. government shutdown.

This week is considered a critical period to assess whether the virus can be contained or will continue to spread. So far, the virus has killed nine people and infected 108 others since it was first confirmed on May 20.

Park's aides were debating on the pros and cons of her trip before she made the final decision earlier in the day.

Officials handling diplomatic affairs wanted the president to go ahead with the trip by cutting short her visit, if necessary.

She had planned to visit Houston, the most populous city in Texas, after holding summit talks with Obama, on June 16.

Still, Park's aides handling political affairs pushed for a delay of her trip on the grounds that the people's safety is the top priority.

As soon as Park made the decision, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se made a call to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to seek Washington's understanding on putting off Park's visit.

South Korea and the U.S. agreed to reschedule Park's trip there at "the earliest mutually convenient time," chief presidential press secretary Kim Sung-woo told reporters after Yun's conversation with Kerry.

In Washington, the White House also said that Obama is willing to host a summit with Park "at a mutually convenient time."

"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.

The comment dispelled concerns by some South Koreans that a delay might have a negative impact on bilateral relations at a time when South Korea needs U.S. diplomatic support in dealing with challenges ranging from historical disputes with Japan to North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programs.

The North has recently launched a ballistic missile from a submarine and claimed that it has mastered the technology to make nuclear warheads small enough to mount on missiles.

South Korea hopes to convey its position on the historical disputes to Obama before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a speech on Aug. 15 in a bid to have Obama speak to Abe about Seoul's stance.

That day marks the 70th anniversary of both the end of World War II and Korea's independence from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule.

Park has repeatedly urged Japan to restore the honor of South Korean women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japan's World War II soldiers, while they are still alive.

The issue has gained urgency as the number of victims still alive has shrunk. In 2007, more than 120 South Korean victims were alive, but the number has since dropped to 52, with their average age standing at nearly 90.

The sex slaves have been one of the knottiest issues between South Korea and Japan, the two key allies of the U.S.

Daniel Pinkston, a Korea expert at the International Crisis Group in Seoul, said Park's decision was driven by domestic politics.

"The summit would have made a positive contribution to bilateral relations, but everything will be fine," he said.

Park's decision also suggested that she has become a leader who is willing to take any blame for the sake of the people's safety, a lesson she learned the hard way through a deadly ferry disaster last year.

Park has been under intense fire for the government's poor response to the sinking of the ferry Sewol that killed more than 300 South Koreans. The public outrage over the disaster has kept her from pushing ahead with her reform agenda.

Park has long been branded by her critics as "uncommunicative" for reportedly refusing to listen to what critics and others have to say and insisting on only what she believes to be right.

"The government will certainly overcome this situation along with the people," Park said earlier this week, referring to the intense efforts to end the MERS virus.


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