South Korea, US postpone annual military drills due to virus

  • U.S. Army's Col. Lee Peters, director of Public Affairs of United States Forces Korea, and Col. Kim Jun-rak, of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff brief about the their postponed joint militaries drills to the media at Defense Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. The South Korean and U.S. militaries have postponed their annual joint drills out of concerns over a virus outbreak. (Korea Pool/Yonhap via AP)

    U.S. Army's Col. Lee Peters, director of Public Affairs of United States Forces Korea, and Col. Kim Jun-rak, of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff brief about the their postponed joint militaries drills to the media at Defense Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. The South Korean and U.S. militaries have postponed their annual joint drills out of concerns over a virus outbreak. (Korea Pool/Yonhap via AP) Associated Press

  • FILE - In this April 26, 2017, file photo, U.S. Army's M1 A2 tanks fire during South Korea-U.S. joint military live-fire drills at Seungjin Fire Training Field in Pocheon, South Korea, near the border with North Korea. The South Korean and U.S. militaries have postponed on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, their annual joint drills out of concerns over a virus outbreak.

    FILE - In this April 26, 2017, file photo, U.S. Army's M1 A2 tanks fire during South Korea-U.S. joint military live-fire drills at Seungjin Fire Training Field in Pocheon, South Korea, near the border with North Korea. The South Korean and U.S. militaries have postponed on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, their annual joint drills out of concerns over a virus outbreak. Associated Press

  • FILE - In this March 25, 2015, file photo, U.S. Army soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team and South Korean soldiers take their positions during a demonstration of the combined arms live-fire exercise as part of the annual joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States at the Rodriquez Multi-Purpose Range Complex in Pocheon, north of Seoul, South Korea. The South Korean and U.S. militaries have postponed on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, their annual joint drills out of concerns over a virus outbreak.

    FILE - In this March 25, 2015, file photo, U.S. Army soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team and South Korean soldiers take their positions during a demonstration of the combined arms live-fire exercise as part of the annual joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States at the Rodriquez Multi-Purpose Range Complex in Pocheon, north of Seoul, South Korea. The South Korean and U.S. militaries have postponed on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, their annual joint drills out of concerns over a virus outbreak. Associated Press

  • FILE - In this Dec. 10, 2015, file photo, U.S. and South Korean army soldiers pose on a floating bridge on the Hantan river after a river crossing operation, part of an annual joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States in Yeoncheon, South Korea. The South Korean and U.S. militaries have postponed on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, their annual joint drills out of concerns over a virus outbreak.

    FILE - In this Dec. 10, 2015, file photo, U.S. and South Korean army soldiers pose on a floating bridge on the Hantan river after a river crossing operation, part of an annual joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States in Yeoncheon, South Korea. The South Korean and U.S. militaries have postponed on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, their annual joint drills out of concerns over a virus outbreak. Associated Press

  • FILE - In this July 6, 2016, file photo, South Korea and U.S. marines participate in a joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States in Pohang, South Korea. The U.S. and South Korean militaries, used to being on guard for threats from North Korea, face a new and formidable enemy that could hurt battle readiness: a virus spreading around the world that has infected more than 1,200 people in South Korea. (Kim Joon-bum/Yonhap via AP, File)

    FILE - In this July 6, 2016, file photo, South Korea and U.S. marines participate in a joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States in Pohang, South Korea. The U.S. and South Korean militaries, used to being on guard for threats from North Korea, face a new and formidable enemy that could hurt battle readiness: a virus spreading around the world that has infected more than 1,200 people in South Korea. (Kim Joon-bum/Yonhap via AP, File) Associated Press

  • In this Feb. 21, 2020, photo, a South Korean marine wearing a mask stands in front of the Navy Base after a soldier of the unit was confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus on Jeju Island, South Korea. The U.S. and South Korean militaries, used to being on guard for threats from North Korea, face a new and formidable enemy that could hurt battle readiness: a virus spreading around the world that has infected more than 1,200 people in South Korea. (Woo Jang-ho/Yonhap via AP)

    In this Feb. 21, 2020, photo, a South Korean marine wearing a mask stands in front of the Navy Base after a soldier of the unit was confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus on Jeju Island, South Korea. The U.S. and South Korean militaries, used to being on guard for threats from North Korea, face a new and formidable enemy that could hurt battle readiness: a virus spreading around the world that has infected more than 1,200 people in South Korea. (Woo Jang-ho/Yonhap via AP) Associated Press

  • In this Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, photo, a U.S. military policeman and South Korean security persons U.S. Army base Camp Walker, in Daegu, South Korea. The U.S. and South Korean militaries, used to being on guard for threats from North Korea, face a new and formidable enemy that could hurt battle readiness: a virus spreading around the world that has infected more than 1,200 people in South Korea. (Kim Hyun-tae/Yonhap via AP)

    In this Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, photo, a U.S. military policeman and South Korean security persons U.S. Army base Camp Walker, in Daegu, South Korea. The U.S. and South Korean militaries, used to being on guard for threats from North Korea, face a new and formidable enemy that could hurt battle readiness: a virus spreading around the world that has infected more than 1,200 people in South Korea. (Kim Hyun-tae/Yonhap via AP) Associated Press

  • In this Feb. 11, 2020 photo, Soldiers in the military truck, spray disinfectant as a precaution against the COVID-19 on the street in Gwangju, South Korea. The U.S. and South Korean militaries, used to being on guard for threats from North Korea, face a new and formidable enemy that could hurt battle readiness: a virus spreading around the world that has infected more than 1,200 people in South Korea. (Shin Dae-hee/Newsis via AP)

    In this Feb. 11, 2020 photo, Soldiers in the military truck, spray disinfectant as a precaution against the COVID-19 on the street in Gwangju, South Korea. The U.S. and South Korean militaries, used to being on guard for threats from North Korea, face a new and formidable enemy that could hurt battle readiness: a virus spreading around the world that has infected more than 1,200 people in South Korea. (Shin Dae-hee/Newsis via AP) Associated Press

  • In this Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, photo, a man passes by U.S. Army base Camp Walker, in Daegu, South Korea. The U.S. and South Korean militaries, used to being on guard for threats from North Korea, face a new and formidable enemy that could hurt battle readiness: a virus spreading around the world that has infected more than 1,200 people in South Korea. (Kim Hyun-tae/Yonhap via AP)

    In this Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, photo, a man passes by U.S. Army base Camp Walker, in Daegu, South Korea. The U.S. and South Korean militaries, used to being on guard for threats from North Korea, face a new and formidable enemy that could hurt battle readiness: a virus spreading around the world that has infected more than 1,200 people in South Korea. (Kim Hyun-tae/Yonhap via AP) Associated Press

 
 
Posted2/27/2020 7:00 AM

SEOUL, South Korea -- The South Korean and U.S. militaries announced Thursday that they were postponing their annual joint drills due to concern about a viral outbreak that has infected soldiers in both countries' armed forces, put many troops in quarantine and closed base facilities.

Twenty-two South Korean soldiers and one American service member in South Korea have tested positive for the new coronavirus, which has infected about 1,770 people in the Asian country, the largest outbreak outside mainland China.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The allies have previously suspended or scaled back their regular military exercises, but that was part of diplomatic efforts to disarm North Korea, which views the training as a rehearsal for an invasion. It's the first time that the allies have put off their drills due to concerns about an infectious disease, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.

In a joint news conference, South Korean and U.S. military officers said their joint drills planned for the first half of this year will be put off until further notice.

South Korean military chief Park Han-ki proposed the delay out of concerns for troop safety and Robert Abrams, the commander of the U.S. military in South Korea, accepted Park's proposal based on the severity of the virus outbreak, said Kim Joon Rak, a spokesman at the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Lee Peters, a U.S. military spokesman, said the postponement decision "was not taken lightly" and that two countries' alliance remains 'œironclad and unbreakable."

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'œDespite the postponement of combined training, the ROK-US alliance remains committed to providing a credible military deterrence and maintaining a robust combined defense posture to protect the ROK against any threat," he said. ROK stands for the Republic of Korea.

South Korea boasts a 600,000-strong military, while the U.S. has 28,500 troops in the country and those troops are at particular risk due to the close quarters at the bases where they are stationed.

In recent days, South Korea suspended some unilateral field training, placed 9,990 troops under quarantine and banned most of its enlisted soldiers from leaving their bases. The U.S. military closed some amenities at several bases and was urging its personnel to avoid handshakes and large gatherings if possible.

Experts say the postponement of the drills was inevitable because the potential spread of the virus into military barracks could significantly weaken military readiness.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

North Korea has not publicly reported any case of the virus, but many experts say the the country also likely reduced its own military training as it's preoccupied with guarding against the virus.

An epidemic in North Korea could cause a devastating consequence because of its dilapidated medical and health care infrastructures, experts say.

This makes it unlikely that North Korea would launch any major provocation anytime soon though leader Kim Jong Un in late December threatened to unveil 'œa new strategic weapon" soon, said analyst Kim Dae-young at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in South Korea.

The U.S. and South Korea were supposed to hold their major springtime drills in March, mostly tabletop exercises and simulations. The drills were revised to create more space in nuclear disarmament diplomacy with North Korea and replaced much bigger exercises that had particularly irritated Pyongyang.

Yang Wook, a military expert who teaches at South Korea's Hannam University, said the springtime command post drills involve officers gathering at a small place so it's easier for them to catch the virus if there is a patient.

'œIf they all wear gas masks and train together, they could be safe. If they can't do so, it's not a bad idea to be more cautious,' Yang said.

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