The American military has placed its garrisons in South Korea, including its largest army base outside the US, under lockdown in an effort to shield them from the coronavirus outbreak.
The restrictions on Camp Humphreys and other US bases are part of efforts to ensure the virus does not threaten troops’ ability to respond to any provocations from North Korea, experts say.
It comes as South Korea became the first country to outpace China in the number of new confirmed cases. Seoul reported 505 new cases on Thursday, bringing its total to more than 2,000. China reported 327 new cases the same day.
The garrison lockdowns are part of sweeping antivirus measures being implemented by General Robert Abrams, who leads the 28,500 US troops in South Korea. This is one of the largest concentrations of US army personnel in a single foreign country.
One US soldier has already tested positive for the virus and is quarantined in an army medical facility. Twenty-five South Korean soldiers have also contracted the illness and almost 10,000 are quarantined. Gen Abrams this week raised the health protection risk level to “high” across the US Forces Korea installations, including at Camp Humphreys, about 70km from Seoul.
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The new restrictions can bar civilian employees and contractors deemed “non-essential” from setting foot on the bases. Health screening of those entering is being ramped up.
Medical tests from US and Korean soldiers showing virus symptoms are being given priority over ordinary citizens, according to one person familiar with the matter, due to the importance of the military in the country. Large-scale joint drills with South Korea have also been suspended.
Despite the restrictions, Chun In-Bum, a retired South Korean lieutenant-general and special forces commander, said he did not expect security risks to be immediately heightened because of North Korea’s own vulnerability to the virus, due to its fragile and underfunded health system.
“A lot of the [US-South Korea] training events will have to be downsized or not conducted at all, which might affect readiness. On the other hand, the North Koreans have a bigger problem . . . I don’t see them conducting any tests or provocative actions,” Mr Chun said.
USFK rebuffed suggestions that its combat ability had been reduced. “Our readiness level remains high. We are constantly on the lookout for any type of provocation from the north,” Colonel Lee Peters, a USFK representative, told the Financial Times.
However, there are further looming problems for the US presence in South Korea because Seoul and Washington have failed to reach a deal on sharing the costs of hosting the American troops, which means some of the 9,000 local Korean staff will soon be asked to take unpaid leave. Colonel Peters described the combination of the virus and the looming loss of staff as a “storm” hitting the US forces.
One US military adviser said a prolonged period of lockdown would ultimately dent the force’s ability to respond to a North Korean threat. He added that while the new restrictions would help isolate and manage the outbreak, the barracks — where soldiers live and work in close quarters — could also act as a “Petri dish” for the virus.