By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed guarded hope for the country’s fight against the coronavirus on Monday, saying a downward trend in new infections could lead to a phase of stability, but he warned that it was too early to be optimistic.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 165 new coronavirus cases, bringing the national tally to 7,478, while the death toll rose by one to 51.

The numbers showed the rate of increase in new infections fell to its lowest level in 11 days in one of the most severely affected countries outside mainland China.

Moon said South Korea can enter the “phase of stability” soon if it continues to reduce the number of new cases.

“We must maintain this trend,” he told a meeting of senior aides. “We’ve come this far thanks to the citizens who were united and cooperated well with the government.

“But it’s too early to be optimistic… Please be a little bit more patient and stay away from mass gatherings such as religious events.”

Health authorities say the number of new infections being identified has dwindled as most of the roughly 200,000 followers of a fringe Christian church at the center of the epidemic in the hard-hit southeastern city of Daegu have now been tested.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun also said at a separate meeting that he was still extremely cautious but “there’s hope we can reach a turning point in the near future”.

U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) reported a new case, bringing the total to eight cases among soldiers, employees or people related to the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

South Korea started rationing surgical masks on Monday after imposing an export ban amid panic buying. Dozens of people were seen lining up outside pharmacies across the country.

Mutual travel restrictions imposed by South Korea and Japan also took effect, an issue that rekindled a diplomatic and economic feud between the old foes.

South Korea suspended visas and visa waivers for Japan on Friday, after Tokyo announced travel restrictions, joining more than 100 other countries limiting arrivals from South Korea.

The dispute, together with oil price swings, sent South Korean shares and the won sharply lower and prompted the finance ministry to issue a verbal warning against disorderly market movement.

A series of K-pop concerts planned in Japan has been called off or postponed, including by Super Junior, Stray Kids and CJ ENM which had planned a major annual festival featuring TWICE and IZ*ONE.

Korean Air, which had previously operated 17 flights to Japan, said it had stopped all but one between Seoul and Tokyo, while Asiana Airlines halted all of its 11 Japanese routes for the first time since it started flying to Japan 30 years ago, company officials said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Stephen Coates, Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)