By: Kang Seung-woo

President Park Geun-hye has decided to delay her planned trip to the United States amid lingering public fears of MERS that has killed nine people so far, Cheong Wa Dae announced Wednesday.

Park was scheduled to depart for Washington D.C., Sunday, and meet with U.S. President Barack Obama. Tuesday. She also planned to visit Houston, Texas.

The presidential office said that Seoul and Washington will reschedule her visit at the earliest possible date.

“As the government’s all-out efforts to contain MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) have not eased public concerns, President Park decided to put off her trip to the U.S.,” Kim Sung-woo, the senior presidential secretary for public relations, said in a briefing.

“Given that the people’s safety is the top priority, she will try to settle the public fear over the disease at home.”

According to Park’s office, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se called his U.S. counterpart John Kerry earlier in the day to check the possibility of postponing the trip and the U.S. side agreed to the suggestion.

The delay came as the epidemic, first detected in the Middle East in 2012, has spread quickly to a total of 108 confirmed cases and nine deaths since its discovery on May 20, making Korea the second-largest outbreak after Saudi Arabia.

In addition, the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) and some members of the ruling Saenuri Party had urged Park to postpone her trip, citing the seriousness of the issue.

However, the worsening public opinion toward the scheduled presidential trip seems to have led to the delay.

People have been opposed to Park’s visit, citing an absence of a head of state, because the week ahead is seen as a watershed for efforts to tackle the virus.

According to a public poll by Realmeter, which interviewed 700 respondents, Monday and Tuesday, 53.2 percent said Park should delay her visit, compared with 39.2 percent who said the trip should move forward as planned.

In addition, Park’s approval rating was hit hard due to the government’s bungled initial response to the MERS outbreak.

Realmeter announced Monday that Park’s approval suffered a decline of 4.4 percentage points from last week and a Gallup Korea survey said Friday that her rating was down 6 percentage points from a week earlier.

“Amid growing criticism of the Park government for its poor initial response that is threatening the people’s lives and safety, Park’s trip may have added fuel to the fire,” said Yoon Hee-woong, a senior researcher at Opinion Live.

“Should the negative public sentiment accompany a possible call for the government to take responsibility for its setback, criticism of Park could go out of control.”

Yoon also said that any Korea-U.S. summit might be overshadowed by MERS.

“If Park decided to push ahead with the plan amid the MERS crisis, she would be under pressure to produce much bigger achievements to quell criticism.”

SOURCE: KOREA TIMES