MERS puts Park in hot seat ahead of US trip

MERS puts Park in hot seat ahead of US trip
South Korean President Park Geun-hye

President Park Geun-hye is facing growing calls from National Assembly members to postpone her scheduled US trip next week, amid escalating fear and resentment over the government's response in fighting the Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak.

Park plans to visit Washington and Houston for a six-day trip which includes a summit with US President Barack Obama.

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

Despite Park's efforts to appease the angry public over the government's bungled early response to MERS, politicians are urging her to delay her trip, citing widespread antipathy against the government for neglecting people's safety.

Rep. Ha Tae-kyung, a ruling Saenuri Party lawmaker, urged her to consider deferring the trip, suggesting that her US counterpart would understand the situation. "The US president cancelled his trip to ASEAN-member countries last October on concerns over the partial shutdown of the federal government," he said. "I believe that the US can fully understand the current domestic situation (of South Korea)."

Opposition leader Moon Jae-in also urged the president to oversee the response measures herself.

"Once again, I urge the president to directly take charge. The president should spearhead (the MERS fight) to reassure the people," he said.

The presidential office said Monday that it has already set its priority on combating MERS but has no plan to delay her trip.

"We have nothing to announce with regard to the US trip and schedule changes," said her spokesman Min Kyung-wook.

The president has been focusing all of her attention on the outbreak, Min said, and that she has been briefed by the Blue House's MERS emergency team on an ad hoc basis. The team is being led by her top policy aide Hyun Jeong-taik and senior presidential secretary for welfare Choi Won-young, he added.

Park also paid a visit to the head office of a pan-governmental organisation launched to seek countermeasures for MERS to monitor the situation and encourage officials there. The president held an impromptu meeting with top policymakers including acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan, Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea and director of the state-run disease control centre to discuss ways to end the crisis.

As of Monday, South Korea has the second-most MERS cases in the world, only after Saudi Arabia.

Amid growing public resentment toward Park, her office's decision to install thermal imagery equipment during her summit with Senegal President Macky Sall last week also sparked controversy.

"Is Cheong Wa Dae only trying to save themselves (from the virus)," Chin Joong-kown, a progressive political critic, said on Twitter.

Cheong Wa Dae said that the measure was taken temporarily based on security protocol to ease the fears of the visiting foreign leader, denying criticism that the top office was taking preventative measures while turning a blind eye to the public frenzy over MERS.

Meanwhile, the approval ratings of Park as well as her ruling party plunged last week over their MERS response.

According to Realmeter, a local pollster, Park's approval rating sank 4.4 percentage points to 40.3 per cent last week, while Saenuri Party's approval rating dived sub-40 per cent for the first time after its landslide victory in the April 29 by-elections.

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