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Reaction To Trump's Infection: Sympathy In South Korea, Some Schadenfreude In China

People pass a TV screen on Friday at the Seoul Railway Station. The Korean words on the screen say, "President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19."
Lee Jin-man
People pass a TV screen on Friday at the Seoul Railway Station. The Korean words on the screen say, "President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19."

South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent a message to President Trump on Friday, wishing him and first lady Melania Trump a "swift recovery" after they tested positive for the coronavirus. "We'd also like to send special words of solace and encouragement to your family and U.S. citizens," Moon wrote.

Among South Korea's neighbors, there was little other immediate official reaction to the news that President Trump tested positive for coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokespersontold Reutersthat China — which Trump has blamed as the source of the global pandemic — hopes Trump and his wife will soon recover. Chinese social media users mocked Trump, but the news was reported without commentary by state-run media. U.S. allies such as South Korea and Japan are under mounting pressure from Washington to join the U.S. in confronting Beijing.

South Korea's Yonhap News Agency quoted an anonymous government source saying Seoul is monitoring financial markets for signs of instability caused by Trump's illness.

Markets were closed for holidays in both South Korea and China. Japan's Nikkei index dipped on news of Trump's infection and ended the day down 0.67%.

In Japan, chief government spokesman Katsunobu Kato declined to comment on Trump's infection but noted he had heard of no changes to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's plans to visit Japan, South Korea and Mongolia next week.

Pompeo is scheduled to attend a meeting of foreign ministers in Tokyo for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the "Quad," an informal security grouping that includes the U.S., Japan, India and Australia. The Quad is widely seen in China as an anti-China cabal.

Trump continued to blame China for the pandemic this week, including during his gladiatorial debate with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Tuesday. "It's China's fault," he said. "It should have never happened."

In the hours after the news broke about Trump's infection, it was the most searched topic on Weibo, China's biggest microblogging platform. Compilations of jokes and postsmocking Trump made the rounds on WeChat, a popular messaging platform. One read: "Trump: 'I will soon conquer the coronavirus!' American people: 'Yes, but what are we supposed to do?' " Another one said: Trump: 'The coronavirus can be effectively treated by injecting yourself with disinfectant.' American people: 'It's your turn to try that, Mr. President.' "

There was no official Chinese response, as the country is observing an eight-day national holiday. One of the few public voices commenting on Trump's infection was that of Hu Xijin, editor of the jingoistic Global Times tabloid. "President Trump and the first lady have paid the price for his gamble to play down the COVID-19," Hu said in a post on Twitter, which was later deleted. Twitter is blocked in China but used by the government and state-run media to reach foreign audiences.

Beijing has said it does not fear confrontation with the U.S. but prefers to keep the relationship on an even keel. "We believe that a sound and stable China-U.S. relationship is in the interest of both countries, and it is needed for achieving the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai tweeted Thursday evening, before the news of Trump's positive test broke.

The Trump administration has claimed that China is the most active among nations trying to interfere in upcoming presidential elections. But a Department of Homeland Security official cast doubt on that narrative last month, when he filed a whistleblower complaint, saying he was told to highlight the threat of Chinese and Iranian interference, while downplaying Russian meddling.

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Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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