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US, South Korea militaries face new enemy in viral outbreak


AP Seoul
The US and South Korean militaries, used to being on guard for threats from North Korea, face a new and formidable enemy that could hurt battle readiness: a virus spreading around the world that has infected more than 1,200 people in South Korea.
As the new coronavirus, which was first found in China, has begun to sweep through South Korea, soldiers stationed in close quarters on bases throughout the country are at particular risk.
Already 20 South Korean soldiers and one American have tested positive.
In response the allies are taking aggressive measures to guard against a viral outbreak and are even considering curtailing a key joint military exercise, something experts say is inevitable because if the virus were to spread through the ranks it could significantly weaken their ability to fight if necessary.
In the military, soldiers are living as a group. So even if just one person contracts the virus at his base, its aftermath would be really tremendous, said Kim Dae-young, an analyst at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
This year, no military training can be the best option.
The virus has infected more than 80,000 people worldwide, mostly in China, though over the past week South Korea has become the second-worst affected country after an outbreak centered in the southeast around its fourth-largest city, Daegu.
South Korea boasts a 600,000-strong military, while the US stations 28,500 troops in the country largely as a deterrent to possible North Korean aggression. Daegu, with a population of about 2.5 million people, is near four American bases.
The United States Forces Korea on Monday said that a USFK widowed dependent tested positive for the virus.
On Wednesday the US reported that a 23-year-old soldierhad tested positiveand would be treated at Camp Humphreys near Seoul.
It said the soldier was originally based at Camp Carroll near Daegu.
South Korea has suspended some unilateral field training, placed 9,570 troops under quarantine and banned most of its enlisted soldiers from leaving their bases.
The US military is also urging its personnel to avoid handshakes and large gatherings if possible.
At Camp Walker in Daegu, the US has prohibited active-duty soldiers there from visiting public gatherings and places off-base, such as grocery stores, bars and restaurants, without permission.
The infected U.S. soldier at Camp Carroll visited Camp Walker earlier this week.
Col. Edward Ballanco, commander of the US Army Garrison Daegu, said bowling alleys, movie theaters and a golf course at the four US bases in the Daegu region were closed after the soldier's case was confirmed, and that all restaurants there were only serving take-out meals.
Restaurants, bars and stores near U.S. bases in South Korea have been hit hard by the outbreak.
The number of customers has been declining outrageously, said Song Doo Hak, owner of a hamburger restaurant near a US air base near Seoul. I've never experienced this kind of situation.
Song said he used to receive about 200 customers, about 40% of them US service members, each day. He said he now receives about 15 customers a day. He said four US soldiers visited his restaurant on Tuesday but none on Wednesday.
Primero, a Mexican restaurant near Camp Walker in Daegu, has seen its customers evaporate over the past week. The restaurant's owner, who asked to be named only by her surname Ji citing privacy concerns, said revenue was down by at least 90%.
Concerned about the possibility that her restaurant becomes linked to a future infection, Ji has closed the dining room and is now serving only take-out meals.

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First Published: Feb 26 2020 | 4:28 PM IST

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