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U.S., Korea mulling a scale down of exercises

Feb 26,2020
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Monday said Washington and Seoul were mulling scaling down their combined military exercises scheduled for spring as a result of the spike in novel coronavirus cases in South Korea.

In a press conference following his talks with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo at the Pentagon, Esper said U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) Commander Gen. Robert Abrams and Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Park Han-ki were “looking at scaling back” a command post exercise due sometime in March or April “due to concerns about the coronavirus.”

While not confirming Esper’s remark, Jeong said the allies would consider “various adjusted options” with regards to the drills in discussions that have already begun between Gen. Abrams and Gen. Park.

If undertaken, the move would diminish the scale of an exercise the allies already agreed to modify in January in order to support diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

Last year, the allies’ annual springtime exercise - the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle maneuvers - were replaced with a computer-simulated war game in the form of a command post drill. A similar exercise was planned for this year, to be conducted for two weeks starting from March 9.

According to a Korean military official, while both sides agreed bringing together around 500 key military officials into a single bunker for an extended period would bring a risk of virus contamination, there were also disagreements about whether it would be appropriate to postpone such an important drill.

For Seoul, which is hoping to regain wartime operational control (Opcon) from the United States within President Moon Jae-in’s term, such exercises serve as key testing grounds to prove it possesses the capacity to command all allied forces in its territory in the event of a war.

Such considerations may have led the allies to compromise on a scale back to the drills rather than a postponement, with Jeong saying the allies would arrive at a decision on the exercise so it doesn’t affect the schedule on assessments related to Opcon transfer.

The USFK also issued a statement on its website Monday denying early press reports that alleged it had proposed to the South Korean military a postponement to the exercise.

The apparent anxiety shown by the U.S. military officials on the drill may have been triggered by a confirmation Monday that a USFK dependent living in Daegu tested positive for the coronavirus.

The patient, a 61-year-old woman, visited a post exchange in Camp Walker - the U.S. garrison in Daegu - on Feb. 12 and 15, according to the USFK. Korean and U.S. military health officials were verifying whether she may have exposed other people in the base to the virus.

Following the confirmation, the USFK elevated its risk assessment for the virus to “high,” announcing its service members would be limited from traveling off U.S. bases while entry procedures into its garrisons would be strengthened.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, LEE KEUN-PYUNG [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]