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ROK-US military drills delayed amid virus concerns

Col. Kim Jun-rak, a spokesman at the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, announces Thursday at Seoul’s Defense Ministry that ROK-US joint military exercises will be put off until further notice for the safety of all service members. (Yonhap)
Col. Kim Jun-rak, a spokesman at the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, announces Thursday at Seoul’s Defense Ministry that ROK-US joint military exercises will be put off until further notice for the safety of all service members. (Yonhap)

South Korea and the US postponed their annual joint military exercises Thursday, following a coronavirus outbreak here that has sickened about 1,800 and killed 13 people in Korea, as of Thursday afternoon.

The drills scheduled for March were put off “until further notice for the safety of all service members,” according to the joint statement from Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and US Forces Korea on Thursday. It was the first time the annual war game had been postponed over an infectious disease.

Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Park Han-ki initially proposed the delay last week, shortly after the military first reported COVID-19 infections among its personnel, to which USFK Commander Gen. Robert Abrams agreed.

“Our combat readiness is not weakened even if the joint drills are postponed,” Jeong Kyeong-doo said Wednesday, while visiting Washington for talks with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

The combat readiness of the combined forces here remains steadfast regardless of any decision the allies make on the joint exercises, “because we would have enhanced our readiness in one way or the other through other training available,” South Korea’s Defense Ministry reaffirmed Thursday.

Originally set to begin March 9, the drills involve a command post exercise that tests the combat readiness of top commanders and senior staff of both sides in computer-simulated events against North Korea.

US officials earlier told CNN that the US could compromise its capability to perform highly coordinated and synchronized operations with South Korea if the joint drills are cut back as they were in August 2018.

The ironclad ROK-US alliance “remains committed to providing a credible military deterrence and maintaining a robust combined defense posture” against any threat, according to the joint statement Thursday.

As of press time, South Korea’s military reported 25 confirmed cases and quarantined about 10,000 personnel as an expanded precaution to contain COVID-19.

USFK reported two patients. A service member of USFK stationed at Camp Carroll in North Gyeongsang Province near Daegu tested positive, and a widow of a former service member was found to be infected earlier after visiting a base in Daegu.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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