Japan may be seeking Korea’s assistance with virus supplies

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Japan may be seeking Korea’s assistance with virus supplies

Japan is reportedly looking for assistance from Korea with medical supplies such as coronavirus test kits and face masks, though Seoul’s Foreign Ministry denied Monday that such discussions have taken place.

Asahi Shimbun reported Sunday that the Moon Jae-in administration is considering offering Covid-19 test kits and face masks and dispatching a medical team if Japan asks for assistance with dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. It added that Korea may sell test kits and provide other assistance to Japan, or even provide them at no charge, citing sources within the administration, including a senior official.

However, it reported that the Moon administration will provide assistance only at the Japanese government’s request, taking into consideration public sentiment amid a diplomatic row over Tokyo’s export restrictions on Seoul implemented since last summer and ongoing historical issues.

It reported that Seoul has sounded out the idea of a teleconference between public health authorities between the two countries to ascertain Japan’s position on such assistance from Korea and that Seoul hopes that the gesture could help improve strained bilateral relations.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry on Monday denied a local media report that Korea is considering providing face masks to Japan, but added that it is open to considering sending Covid-19 related supplies to countries that need them, depending on domestic circumstances.

A local newspaper reported earlier that same day that the Korean government suggested mask support to some senior officials of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party through an unofficial channel and that Tokyo has not yet responded to the offer.

The Foreign Ministry in a statement said, “There has been no suggestion of mask assistance at our level with the Japanese government.”

“While overseas shipments of face masks are currently restricted, we will actively review the outbound shipment of Covid-19 quarantine supplies, including masks, when domestic circumstances allow room for it and taking into consideration the situation in the requesting country,” the ministry said, leaving doors open for future assistance. This includes both the export of medical supplies and humanitarian assistance for countries most in need.

The ministry added that the Korean Embassy in Tokyo has recently reached out to associations of residents in Japan to survey the demand for masks among the overseas Koreans to take into consideration future assistance.

“We are not in a position to comment on a situation requiring internal review by the Korean government,” said Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese chief cabinet secretary, in a press briefing Monday on the matter of Seoul’s assistance. “We are currently not holding detailed talks on assistance with the Korean government.”

A senior Korean Foreign Ministry official told reporters last month, “We can review assistance for humanitarian reasons regardless of inevitable difficult relations with Japan.”

The situation is a delicate one because cooperation in coronavirus containment could be an opportunity to improve Korea-Japan relations; however, it also comes with continued tensions with Tokyo over trade restrictions and public sentiment to prioritize domestic stability.

The Japanese government decided Monday to extend its entry restrictions such as a suspension of visa-free entries on countries including Korea to the end of May.

As of Monday, Japan has over 13,440 confirmed coronavirus cases and 372 reported deaths, surpassing Korea in both figures.

People in Japan have faced difficulties purchasing masks and prices online have surged, similar to what happened at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak in Korea in late February. Korea has since cranked up production of masks, implemented measures to crack down on price gouging and tightened exports. Korea in early March also introduced a rationing system which ensured people can buy up to two masks a week at a pharmacy on designated days depending on their birth year.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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