US and South Korea considering scaling back military exercises due to coronavirus concerns
Posted February 24, 2020 9:14 p.m. EST
CNN — The United States and South Korea are considering scaling back upcoming joint military exercises due to the coronavirus outbreak in the Korean Peninsula, according to US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
Esper said the US commander of US forces in Korea, Gen. Robert Abrams, and South Korea's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Park Han-ki, "are looking at scaling back the command post training due to concerns about the coronavirus."
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon alongside his South Korean counterpart, Minister of Defense Kyeong-doo Jeong, Esper said he is confident the US and South Korea will "remain fully ready to deal with any threats that we might face together."
The South Korean defense minister, speaking through a translator, said that "due to the coronavirus in Korea, the situation is quite serious," saying that the US-South Korean military leadership "will make the right decision through close coordination" with regard to the command post exercise.
He said that there were 13 confirmed cases of coranavirus among South Korean military personnel.
There are approximately 28,000 US troops in South Korea.
Earlier Monday, US Forces Korea issued a statement saying it had raised its risk level across the South Korea to "high" after the widow of a former service member serving with US Forces Korea tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The woman is said to have visited Camp Walker's Post Exchange in Daegu on February 12 and 15. US Forces Korea said it is working with South Korea's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to "actively conducting contact tracing to determine whether any others may have been exposed."
During their joint press conference, Esper called on South Korea to contribute more to the cost of housing US troops on the peninsula, a long-held goal of the Trump administration.
While South Korea has said it is willing to pay more, the US and South Korea have not agreed to the size of Seoul's contribution, despite several rounds of negotiations.
Esper's South Korean counterpart said that the current negotiations for the cost-sharing arrangement -- the so-called Special Measures Agreement -- were at a "standstill," but expressed optimism that an agreement could still be reached.
The absence of a new agreement will result in the furlough of South Korean nationals who work to support the US military presence there, something the South Korean minister called "a difficult pill to swallow."
"Right now what we're doing is we are engaging negotiations with the Republic of Korea. The minister and I are both hopeful that they'll reach agreement soon, preferably before the end of March, otherwise beginning April 1 we will begin furloughing Korean national workers," Esper said.