Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon Monday that some command post joint exercises with South Korea could be scaled back due to precautions being taken over the rapidly-spreading coronavirus.
South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo echoed Esper’s sentiments during a joint briefing held at the Pentagon Monday and said that the combined exercises may have to be “curtailed.”
Jeong explained that the spread of the virus has grown more “serious by the day” and that movement between South Korean military units was limited.
The South Korean defense minister said U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Abe Abrams and Gen. Park Han-Ki, Republic of Korea chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were working on the issue and would “make the right decision.”
The Associated Press reported Sunday that there was a viral outbreak in South Korea that had infected 600 people. The country has been put on high alert for infectious diseases.
The Department of Defense Education Activity tweeted Monday that in coordination with U.S. Forces Korea that schools would remain closed Feb. 24 though Feb. 28 over fears related to the viral outbreak.
U.S. Forces Korea raised the risk level for the command from moderate to high following reports that a widow of a retired soldier living in Daegu, South Korea, had contracted the coronavirus.
The widow is the first and so far the only case of an individual with ties to USFK contracting the virus, and no service members affiliated with command have tested positive for the virus yet, USFK said.
USFK commander commander Army Gen. Robert Abrams clarified that the patient was the widow of a retired soldier, amid media reports that a family member of a USFK soldier had tested positive for the virus.
“Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and USFK health professionals are actively conducting contact tracing to determine whether any others may have been exposed,” USFK said in a statement Monday. “USFK encourages all personnel to continue to practice strict proper hygiene procedures as the best ways to prevent the spread of viruses and protect the USFK population.”
Cancellation of joint exercises on the Korean Peninsula has fanned worries by national security experts and lawmakers that U.S. forces and their South Korean allies are ill prepared to handle a crisis or conflict orchestrated by North Korea.
A number of exercises have been modified or canceled to make space for diplomatic maneuvering with North Korea.
The Pentagon has argued that modified and simulated exercises have afforded U.S. and South Korean forces to meet proper training benchmarks and that forces in the region are ready to head on threats by North Korea.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.