Drivers who come to and from the US Forces Korea base Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, get tested for COVID-19. (Yonhap News)
Seventy-two US troops were confirmed to have recently tested positive for the novel coronavirus by a research institute in South Korea. But the US Forces Korea (USFK) command has only maintained that they are not US soldiers stationed in South Korea, without providing any information about the transmission pathways or the location of the diagnosed individuals’ workplaces.
A Seoul research institute identified by the initial “S,” which is responsible for coronavirus testing, produced positive test results for a total of 72 US troops in three sets of tests conducted between March and early April. The testing of the 72 troops’ samples was requested by a US military hospital at Camp Humphreys, a USFK base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. The information was shared by the institute commissioned to perform testing when it notified the city of Pyeongtaek as the corresponding local government.Identities of diagnosed cases still unknown, but may be USS Theodore Roosvelt’s crew members
As of Apr. 5, the actual identities of the 72 troops who tested positive remained unknown. The city of Pyeongtaek inquired about their identities with the USFK Command at Camp Humphreys -- but the command remained tight-lipped, sharing only that the individuals in question were “not USFK” but “soldiers assisting with South Korea’s security.”
This has given rise to varied speculation on the diagnosed individuals and their transmission pathways. Some have suggested they may be crew members working on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. On Mar. 30, the Theodore Roosevelt’s commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier, sent a letter voicing concerns about possible coronavirus infections among crew members and requesting US Defense Department assistance. The letter became a source of controversy when its content was shared in the media, and Crozier was abruptly replaced.
Further fueling speculation is the fact that the Theodore Roosevelt’s recent course included the South China Sea, which is not far from South Korea. After departing its home port of San Diego on Apr. 1, the Theodore Roosevelt docked at Da Nang and other ports around the middle of last month before taking part in maneuvers in the South China Sea. As of Apr. 4, 155 confirmed coronavirus cases had been reported from the vessel, which is currently at anchor off the coast of Guam. Observers suspect that as the situation became more urgent, the US military may have requested emergency assistance from South Korea, which is not far from the vessel’s course and enjoys a strong international reputation for the speed and accuracy of its coronavirus testing.
Other possibilities that have been raised include US bases on Okinawa and Guam. Since they are located relatively close to South Korea, the possibility is being raised that US troops stationed there may have undergone testing.Inappropriate for USFK to request testing of soldiers working outside S. Korea
Some observers have argued that it is inappropriate for USFK to request testing for US troops working outside South Korea from a Korean institute, whatever the circumstances. Depending on perspective, it could be seen as tantamount to USFK taking advantage of its special position in South Korea to effectively commission the testing of US nationals. Another source of controversy is the fact that USFK provided only numbers rather than names when it commissioned the testing, which prevented the identities from being ascertained. The city of Pyeongtaek claimed to have “been told by Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) not to conduct testing on samples of unclear provenance going forward,” although the KCDC denied this.
The cumulative total of diagnosed USFK-related coronavirus cases rose to 19 as of Apr. 5 with the addition of one new diagnosis that day. USFK also announced the same day that it was imposing stern disciplinary action on troops who visited a pub outside of their base in defiance of coronavirus response guidelines. One sergeant first class had their pay confiscated, while three other soldiers had their pay confiscated and were demoted to trainee status. The South Korea military has had a cumulative total of 39 diagnosed cases (seven in progress, 32 fully recovered), with no additional diagnoses for a 13th straight day.
By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer, Hong Yong-duk, South Gyeonggi correspondent, and Noh Ji-won, staff reporter
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