(ATTN: ADDS more details, background in paras 2, 4-11)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Feb. 27 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States decided to postpone their springtime joint military exercises over growing concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus, their combined command said Thursday.
The two sides had initially planned to stage their computer-simulated combined command post training in March but decided to put it off "until further notice" in light of Seoul's decision to raise its alert rating to "severe," the highest level, over COVID-19, according to the Combined Forces Command (CFC).
It is the first time that the allies have decided to modify combined exercises due to health-related issues.
South Korea has seen a drastic surge in the infections over the past week, with the number of confirmed cases standing at 1,595 as of early Thursday. So far, 12 have died.
Among South Korean military personnel, 21 cases have been reported -- 20 active-duty soldiers and one Army civilian worker -- and around 9,500 soldiers are currently in quarantine as a preventive step.
U.S. Forces Korea saw its first coronavirus patient among its troops on Wednesday when a 23-year-old man stationed in the southeastern county of Chilgok tested positive.
In making the postponement decision, the allies prioritized containment efforts for the virus and the safety of their service members, the CFC said, adding that the decision "will adhere to and support South Korea's containment and mitigation plan for COVID-19."
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman Gen. Park Han-ki first raised the issue, and CFC commander Gen. Robert Abrams agreed upon the deferment "based on the severity" of the present situation, it noted.
Stressing that the latest decision "was not taken lightly," the command said the alliance "remains committed to providing a credible military deterrence and maintaining a robust combined defense posture" to protect South Korea against any threat.
The statement was read jointly by Col. Lee Peters, director of CFC Public Affairs, and Col. Kim Jun-rak, spokesperson of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
Until 2018, the allies held large-scale springtime exercises called Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. But they replaced them with Dong Maeng, command post exercises without field maneuvers, last year amid peace efforts involving North Korea.
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