Defense Secretary Mark Esper, left, listens as South Korean National Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, right, speaks during a…
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, left, listens as South Korean National Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, right, speaks during a news conference at Pentagon in Washington, Feb. 24, 2020.

SEOUL - The United States and South Korea have postponed a series of joint military exercises "until further notice," amid a major coronavirus outbreak in South Korea.

In a statement, U.S. and South Korean military officials said the decision was "based on the severity of the present COVID-19 situation within South Korea."  

"The containment efforts for COVID-19 and the safety of the ROK and U.S. service members were prioritized in making this decision," the statement said.  "The decision to postpone the combined training was not taken lightly."

The announcement comes a day after the U.S. military announced its first confirmed coronavirus infection: a 23-year-old male who was stationed at a U.S. base near the epicenter of the South Korean outbreak.

At least 25 South Korean civilian military workers and active-duty soldiers have been infected. Thousands more have been quarantined on South Korean military bases.

The spread of the virus within military ranks would represent a dangerous new component of the outbreak, since many service members live in close quarters and share common meals.

The postponement of the exercises, which were set to start next week, temporarily removes an irritant to U.S. relations with North Korea. Pyongyang says it views the drills as preparation to invade.  

Several recent U.S.-South Korean military exercises have been modified or postponed in order to help facilitate nuclear talks with North Korea.

North Korea has walked away from the negotiations, saying it wants the U.S. to relieve sanctions or provide more security guarantees.  

‘National survival’ in North Korea

But for now, North Korea appears focused on its own virus prevention efforts, which it has called a matter of "national survival."  

North Korea has not reported any infections, but several unconfirmed reports suggest the virus has reached the country.

This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Feb. 15, 2020, shows people in protective suits spraying disinfectant at an undisclosed location in North Korea amid concerns about the coronavirus.

North Korea was among the first countries to restrict travel from China, where the virus originated. It has also barred entry to all foreign tourists and imposed a 30-day quarantine on other arriving foreigners.  

An outbreak in North Korea could be disastrous, as the country is impoverished and lacks adequate medical supplies.

South Korea situation worsens

In South Korea, the coronavirus outbreak continues to worsen. South Korean officials Thursday announced 505 new cases, the biggest daily increase yet.

A total of 1,766 people in South Korea are confirmed to have the virus, which causes a respiratory illness known as COVID-19. Just last week, that number stood at 30.

Most of the South Korean infections are in and around Daegu, the country’s fourth-largest city. The U.S. military has thousands of service members in the region.

Restrictions     

At some military bases on South Korea, U.S. soldiers have been prevented from nonessential off-base travel. U.S. officials have also implemented virus screening efforts outside bases, creating long lines.  

Some local Korean workers told VOA they waited 4-5 hours on Wednesday to get into Camp Humphreys, the main U.S. military base here. The lines were reportedly only around an hour on Thursday morning.

Some on-base restaurants and entertainment venues have also been closed. Department of Defense schools in Korea have also been shuttered.

Earlier this week, the U.S. military in South Korea raised its risk level to high after reporting that a 61-year-old woman with the coronavirus visited a store at Camp Walker in Daegu. The woman was the widow of a retired soldier.

Highly contagious

The coronavirus currently has a mortality rate of around 2%. But it is highly contagious, in part because infected patients can spread the disease before showing symptoms.

More than 80,000 people worldwide have contracted the virus. Almost 3,000 people have died. Most the cases have been in China.

But over the past week, countries including Iran, Italy and South Korea have reported a surge in confirmed cases. World health officials are now worried the outbreak could turn into a global pandemic.

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