The United States and South Korea have reaffirmed their strong alliance after a summit scheduled for next week was canceled over an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the South.
The White House said President Barack Obama spoke to South Korean President Park Geun-hye to express “his understanding of President Park’s decision to postpone” the planned visit. The two presidents were to meet Tuesday.
“The president and President Park agreed that the visit would be rescheduled so that the two leaders can discuss important issues of mutual interest, including our joint efforts to counter the North Korean nuclear and missile threat and the crucial role the ROK plays in maintaining peace and stability in the region,” the White House said in a statement Friday.
Earlier, Park’s office issued a lengthy statement stressing Obama’s support for her decision and his commitment to close ties between the two allies.
“Expressing his support for President Park’s judgment and her leadership, he also said he fully understood that President Park decided to delay her trip to the United States in order to concentrate on the response to the MERS outbreak,” the statement said.
“President Obama said that Korea-U.S. relations were a top priority for the United States,” it added.
The MERS outbreak ignited a political dilemma for Park after her government came under fire for mishandling the crisis. Public opinion was split over whether she should proceed with the scheduled visit to the U.S., with some warning that her visit would turn the crisis into a full-blown political scandal and others claiming cancellation of the trip would be a big embarrassment to the country.
Political analysts said it was important for Obama and Park to avoid unnecessary tension in bilateral relations.
“The phone call is a gesture from Obama to reassure President Park that he fully understands the burdens of leadership and will look forward to seeing her in the future. It suggests the kind of close, personal friendship they enjoy,” Frank Jannuzi, president of the Mansfield Foundation, a U.S.-Asia policy and research group, wrote in an email to the VOA Korean service.
Gregg Brazinsky, a professor at The George Washington University, said he didn't see Park’s decision having a major impact on the alliance. “Obama’s phone call reflected that he agreed that Park could reschedule her visit for a later date," he said. "I don’t see any significant negative ramification for delaying the trip.”
The MERS virus has killed 13 people and infected more than 120 since it was introduced to South Korea last month. The outbreak there is the largest outside Saudi Arabia, where the virus was first identified in 2012.
Hwan Yong Kim contributed to this report from Seoul.