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International relations

South Korea and US postpone military drills due to coronavirus

Annual exercise put on hold after 21 service members test positive for COVID-19

SEOUL (AP) -- The South Korean and U.S. militaries postponed their annual joint drills Thursday out of concerns over a viral epidemic that has infected soldiers in both countries' armed forces, put many troops in quarantine and closed base facilities.

Twenty South Korean soldiers and one American service member in South Korea have tested positive for the new coronavirus that has infected hundreds of people in the Asian country.

South Korea has already suspended some unilateral field training, placed 9,570 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 is urging its personnel to avoid handshakes and large gatherings if possible.

The joint drills in the first half of this year will be put off until further notice, Kim Joon Rak, a spokesman at the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday.

Kim said JCS chief Park Han-ki proposed the delay out of concerns for troop safety and Robert Abrams, the chief of the U.S. military in South Korea, accepted Park's proposal based on the severity of the virus outbreak.

Lee Peters, a spokesman for the U.S. military in South Korea, told the same news conference that the postponement decision "was not taken lightly" and that two countries' alliance remains "ironclad and unbreakable."

"Despite 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.

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

The allies were supposed to hold their major springtime drills in March, mostly tabletop exercises and simulations. The drills were revised to support 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.

"If 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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