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Coronavirus threat ‘shifted balance’ in military readiness, top US commander in South Korea says

Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, discusses the coronavirus threat during an interview with Stars and Stripes in his office as Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Friday, March 27, 2020.

KIM GAMEL/STARS AND STRIPES

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 27, 2020

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CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — New coronavirus cases on the main U.S. base in South Korea have prompted strict new health measures that could jeopardize military readiness on the peninsula, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea said.

Gen. Robert Abrams said he was willing to take that risk despite the threat from North Korea after three more people tested positive on Camp Humphreys, raising the total number of infections affiliated with USFK to 12.

“This morning we went to bare bones minimum, watch teams only in the headquarters, everybody basically shelter in place, only go out for the essentials,” he told Stars and Stripes Friday in an exclusive interview.

The new restrictions were a blow to the military community that already has been largely confined to home or base for more than five weeks as South Korea suffered from an outbreak that began in the southeastern city of Daegu.

“We’ll be under these conditions for a few days,” Abrams said in his office, wearing civilian clothes including a baseball cap and a black T-shirt with the #KilltheVirus logo that the military has adopted.

The number of people in quarantine, which had recently dipped from a high of 398 to double-digits, rose back above 100, Abrams said. People who had been near the confirmed cases were urged to self-isolate and contact the public health line (0503-337-2556).

Shifting the balance

Abrams acknowledged the challenges, particularly for platoon and company-level training on Camp Humphreys, home to most of the 28,500 service members stationed on the divided peninsula. Gyms also were closed.

The U.S. military has canceled or curtailed exercises and implemented similar restrictions throughout the force as more than 650 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed within the Defense Department.

But the Army in South Korea is on one of the world’s most dangerous fronts. Camp Humphreys is less than 100 miles south of the heavily fortified border with North Korea.

Underscoring the threat, North Korea test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles on Sunday, the fourth such launch this month as it continues to develop its weapons program amid stalled nuclear talks with the United States.

“We call it fight-tonight readiness,” Abrams said Friday. “To protect the force is our No. 1 priority, but we have to balance that with maintaining mission readiness.

“I have shifted the balance today for Camp Humphreys and accepted what I believe is acceptable risk on the mission side until I feel confident that we have our arms around these particular cases,” he said.

“We’re at a pretty high level of readiness so I’m not concerned for four or five or six days. Now if we had to hypothetically maintain these conditions for 30 days then I will start to get concerned,” he added.

The North insists it has not had any cases, although that’s impossible to confirm and State Department officials have expressed concern about a brewing humanitarian crisis.

Abrams said the North had resumed military activity after going on lockdown for about 30 days due to the coronavirus, which first appeared in China late last year.

He said that would likely stop soon since the North was nearing the end of its winter training cycle and needed to deploy troops to help with the spring planting season and construction projects.

Possible exposure

Four coronavirus cases have now been confirmed at Camp Humphreys, which has a population of more than 37,000 in the rural area of Pyeongtaek.

The other eight - including the only other soldier - were at bases in Daegu and nearby areas.

Military officials were scouring closed-circuit TV footage and interviewing people to determine who else may have been exposed after a soldier and a contractor were confirmed to have the virus on Friday.

Abrams said they appeared to have been infected by another contractor who tested positive Tuesday, which would make them the first people known to have been infected on post. All worked at Eighth Army headquarters.

Military police were on guard as lines formed outside the Camp Humphreys commissary on Friday because only 100 people were allowed in at a time to prevent close contact.

“I’ve been staying at home all the days I’m not on duty and I ran out of food,” Navy Lt. Jamie Collyer said as she waited her turn.

“Do I want to stand outside in the wind? No. Am I upset about it? No. I think that the restrictions are a reasonable measure,” she added. “We’ve seen how it can jump from person to person.”

Down the street, soldiers wheeled a cart packed with groceries toward the barracks on foot after on-post taxi and bus service was halted.

Last straw

Abrams stressed that even with the new cases, the USFK numbers remain relatively low for a community comprising about 58,000 people including service members, family members, civilians and South Korean employees.

However, he declared a public health emergency earlier this week to gain authority to enforce compliance among civilians as well as service members with rules against nonessential activity off-post.

Two soldiers received nonjudicial punishment on March 19, including reductions in rank, forfeiture in pay, extra duty and written reprimands, for violations of COVID-19 public health guidance and other orders, according to the Eighth Army.

Five civilians also had been caught in local establishments after posting photos on social media, Abrams said.

The contractor who tested positive on Tuesday, known as USFK case No. 10, went to a restaurant in the community, Abrams said.

“Early on people were very compliant, but you have to fight complacency, and case No. 10, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

South Korea has seen a decline in the daily number of confirmed cases in recent weeks, but authorities have warned the crisis is not over due to continued cluster outbreaks and infections imported from abroad.

South Korea logged 105 new cases Saturday for a total of 9,583, according to the Korean Centers for Disease Control. That was down from a high of 909 on Feb. 29.

Abrams shed some light on how the military is measuring progress, saying 50 cases per day would be the next benchmark, then 25.

“The message is if you want access to a USFK installation you actually have to be 100% compliant, every single person, because it only takes one,” he said.

“Once it gets inside the wire, once it gets inside the protective bubble, then it puts everybody else at risk,” he said, “and it puts the mission at risk.”

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

Customers wait in line to enter the commissary at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Friday, March 27, 2020.
MATTHEW KEELER/STARS AND STRIPES