ROK-U.S. News

Restrictions are back across South Korea as coronavirus cases rise

A medical professional from the 65th Medical Brigade conducts a nasal swab on an Eighth Army civilian employee who was selected randomly for Eighth Army COVID-19 Surveillance Testing Aug. 6 on Camp Humphreys, South Korea. U.S. ARMY

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPESPublished: August 16, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea — As coronavirus cases spiked in South Korea, the U.S. military said it would reimpose restrictions nationwide effective Monday, including health checks at access gates, limited access to base stores and minimum essential staffing at work.

The reversal came Sunday as South Korea’s number of confirmed cases reached triple digits for the third day in a row.

U.S. Forces Korea, which includes some 28,500 troops, announced Saturday that it was raising the health protection level to “Charlie” for Seoul and surrounding areas.

The commander of Camp Humphreys, the main Army garrison, said Sunday that was being extended for all bases on the divided peninsula, beginning at 5 a.m. Monday.

HPCON Charlie indicates an area is experiencing sustained community transmission, according to the Defense Department.

“We’re absolutely going to minimum essential manning only,” Col. Michael Tremblay said in a brief Facebook live appearance. “We’re really hunkering down. We’re minimizing our footprint based on the numbers that are going on in Seoul.”

USFK has well-practiced measures to prevent the spread of the virus that were first imposed in late February as South Korea was an early epicenter of the pandemic.

The military only recently eased restrictions when the daily count declined to 50 or less for a protracted period as the South was lauded for its strict testing and tracing procedures.

On Monday, soldiers will return to access gates to check temperatures and survey people on their health and risk level, Tremblay said.

He also said the number of people allowed into the commissary and PX at a single time would be limited.

“We want to protect our bubble,” he said, promising more details in coming hours. “We’re going back into a defensive position.”

Masks already were required in public facilities and whenever it was impossible to maintain a safe distance on base.

Bars, clubs and other adults-only establishments also have remained off-limits in all areas.

No changes were immediately announced for Defense Department schools, which are due to reopen on Aug. 24 in South Korea.

South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 279 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, the highest daily increase since early March.

It was the third consecutive day that the numbers reached triple digits, with 166 on Saturday and 103 on Friday, raising fears of another massive outbreak.

Most of the infections were linked to churches, a popular street market and other communal areas in Seoul and surrounding areas, but health authorities said it was becoming harder to control the virus.

Concern also was high that more people may have contracted the virus during a rally that drew thousands of anti-government protesters in Seoul who ignored official pleas to stay home.

USFK has reported that 153 affiliated personnel, including 105 service members, have tested positive for the virus – most as part of a mandatory testing and quarantine process for travelers arriving in the country. Only 24 of those, including two soldiers, contracted the virus on the peninsula, with the most recent in mid-April.

USFK put Seoul and surrounding areas back off-limits on Saturday, less than a week after the health alert level for the area dubbed “Area II+” had been lowered.

Many people already had traveled to the capital for the first time in months to enjoy the weekend, only to have to return home.

“This means all USFK-affiliated individuals can only travel to Area II+ for official and necessary duties. All other travel requires an exception to policy memo,” signed by a colonel or equivalent civilian supervisor, USFK spokesman Col. Lee Peters said Friday in a video announcement.

He urged people to adhere to measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, including wearing masks when it’s not possible to maintain a safe distance and washing hands frequently.

The Army’s Yongsan Garrison in Seoul also restored protective measures that had been lifted, including closing all but two entry gates and resuming health checks before entry.

While the overall number of cases in South Korea, a nation of more than 51 million people, remained low compared to other countries, health authorities have consistently warned that cluster infections and imported cases threaten to reverse the progress.

South Korea has reported 15,318 cases since Jan. 20, with 305 deaths and 13,901 patients fully recovered.
Twitter: @kimgamel


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The Korea Times – Facilities at North Korea nuclear complex may be damaged by flood: US think tank

Satellite images of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex next to Kuryong River. Compared to the left taken on July 22, the right taken on Aug. 6 shows the overblown river covering the land. 38 North said the flooded water might have affected operation of the complex's uranium enrichment plant on the river bank, shown in the northeast corner. 38 North-Yonhap
Satellite images of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex next to Kuryong River. Compared to the left taken on July 22, the right taken on Aug. 6 shows the overblown river covering the land. 38 North said the flooded water might have affected operation of the complex’s uranium enrichment plant on the river bank, shown in the northeast corner. 38 North-Yonhap


Satellite images of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex next to Kuryong River. Compared to the left taken on July 22, the right taken on Aug. 6 shows the overblown river covering the land. 38 North said the flooded water might have affected operation of the complex's uranium enrichment plant on the river bank, shown in the northeast corner. 38 North-Yonhap

Significant flooding has happened along a river near North Korean’s Yongbyon nuclear complex, and facilities at the complex could have been damaged, a U.S. monitoring website said Thursday.

The website 38 North, a think tank monitoring North Korea, made the analysis based on satellite imagery from Aug. 6, saying that “water had reached the two pump houses that service the reactors” at Yongbyon nuclear complex.

“The August 6 imagery, when compared to imagery from July 22, shows a dramatic rise in the water level of the Kuryong River that flows alongside the Yongbyon complex,” the think tank said. It said the flooding appears to the worst in recent years.

The think tank also revealed an image of a fully submerged dam on the Kuryong River and pointed out that the flood could potentially damage the pumps or clog piping systems that draw water from the river, causing the reactor to shutdown.

Satellite images of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex next to Kuryong River. Compared to the left taken on July 22, the right taken on Aug. 6 shows the overblown river covering the land. 38 North said the flooded water might have affected operation of the complex's uranium enrichment plant on the river bank, shown in the northeast corner. 38 North-Yonhap
In this June 27, 2008 file image from TV, the demolition of the 60-foot-tall cooling tower at its main reactor complex in Yongbyon North Korea. Yonhap

The complex is home to a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor that was the source of weapons-grade plutonium for the North. Pyongyang can harvest one nuclear bomb worth of plutonium by reprocessing spent fuel rods from the reactor.

“Although the 5 MWe reactor does not appear to have been operating for quite some time, and the Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) has yet to come online, both would need consistent water flow to operate,” it said.

“Therefore, if or when either of the reactors is operating, clogged intakes and/or broken or damaged pumps would necessitate a shutdown,” it said.

Satellite imagery from Aug. 8 and 11, however, shows that the waters have receded, suggesting there was no damage to key facilities, such as the Uranium Enrichment Plant (UEP), the think tank added.

The North has been hit hard by unprecedented heavy rainfall this month, causing flood and damage across the country. (Yonhap)


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The Korea Times – Wartime OPCON transfer plan may face setback

Helicopters are parked inside the U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, Tuesday. According to sources, Korea and the U.S. will hold the joint military exercise from Aug. 16 to 28, after carrying out a preliminary Crisis Management Staff Training drill for four days from Tuesday. Yonhap
Helicopters are parked inside the U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, Tuesday. According to sources, Korea and the U.S. will hold the joint military exercise from Aug. 16 to 28, after carrying out a preliminary Crisis Management Staff Training drill for four days from Tuesday. Yonhap

By Jung Da-min

The government’s goal to accomplish the transition of wartime operational control (OPCON) of the Korean military from Washington to Seoul by 2022 may face a setback as this year’s joint military exercises with the United States will be scaled down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This means procedures necessary for the transition will not be carried out as planned.

To complete the transfer of wartime OPCON, the military had planned to use the drills in August to assess its full operational capability (FOC), the second step in a three-phase verification process for the transition. But the allies reportedly decided to exclude the FOC verification, as U.S. troops in charge of this process cannot come to Korea due to concerns over spreading the coronavirus.

The Korean language edition of Voice of America (VOA) reported Monday that FOC verification would be impossible, citing a U.S. official. “It will be impossible to conduct the assessment, known as a Full Operational Capability test, in large part because of the 14 day quarantine requirement for U.S. personnel coming to Korea, a U.S. official said,” William Gallo, the Seoul bureau chief for VOA, wrote on his Twitter.

According to Gallo, the official acknowledged that the failure to conduct the FOC would delay the OPCON transfer but added, “Any decision regarding OPCON transition will be an alliance decision and is based on bilaterally agreed to conditions and not a timeline.”

If the FOC test is delayed, the third phrase of verification ― full mission capability (FMC) which the government planned to carry out next year ― would also be postponed. This rescheduling could lead to a delay in the goal to retake wartime OPCON before President Moon Jae-in’s five-year term ends.

Following the VOA report, the Korean military said it closely consulting with its U.S. counterparts over ways to conduct the exercise.

According to sources, the two militaries will hold the joint exercise from Aug. 16 to 28, after carrying out a preliminary Crisis Management Staff Training (CMST) drill for four days from Tuesday.

Defense watchers said scaling down the summertime exercise was a foregone conclusion given the COVID-19 restrictions; and so FOC verification would be impossible as it requires a full formation of both Korean and U.S. troops.

In August last year, the allies conducted their first joint military exercise led by a Korean general for initial operational capability (IOC) verification, the first phrase of the transfer.

“Last year’s summertime joint drill focused on the IOC which assessed the process of completing the formation of the troops. The FOC verification, which was supposed to be conducted during this year’s drill, is about assessing the operation of the troops after formation,” said Shin Beom-chul, a director at the Korea Research Institute for the National Security Center for Diplomacy and Security.

“For the FOC verification, the United States Forces Korea (USFK) should be able to send a full complement of troops necessary for the task, but this was impossible amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, claimed the U.S. government was reluctant to conduct FOC verification, and such stance could be seen in USFK commander Gen. Robert Abrams’s July 1 lecture at a forum on the Korea-U.S. military alliance.

In the lecture, Abrams said the allies should resume theater-level combined post-command exercises as the springtime drills were postponed due to COVID-19, as these were essential to maintain military readiness.

“What Abrams was trying to say was that Korea and the U.S. should not push ahead with the FOC when they are not able to meet the basic conditions especially when joint exercises cannot be conducted as before amid the pandemic,” Park said.

Park also said other U.S. government officials don’t appear to favor the transfer of wartime OPCON when a conflict with China was mounting as they would want to retain influence on the Korean Peninsula to hold Beijing in check.

“In fact, it was U.S. President Donald Trump who supported the idea of the transfer of wartime OPCON, as he thought keeping it meant that the U.S. was taking the burden in terms of money and political responsibility. But it seems the Trump administration is losing control over the matter as there are other big issues it needs to focus.”


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Yonhap – S. Korea, U.S. set to launch combined summertime exercise next week

By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Aug. 11 (Yonhap) — South Korea and the United States are expected to kick off their annual summertime combined exercise next week in a scaled-back manner due to coronavirus concerns, a source said Tuesday.

The computer-simulated command post training will likely run from Aug. 16-28, the source said. In the run-up to the exercise, the two countries launched a four-day crisis management staff training (CMST) on Tuesday.

Defense ministry officials, however, declined to confirm the dates.

“The JCS is preparing to meet the training goals before beginning the main exercise,” JCS spokesperson Col. Kim Jun-rak said during a regular press briefing.

Whether and how to conduct the annual summertime exercises have been a focus of attention as their springtime drills were postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 situation.

The two countries have decided to push ahead with the summertime drill, but it will be held in a reduced-scale, as American troops necessary for the exercise are unable to come to South Korea in large numbers due to the pandemic.

The two sets of exercises, which usually take place in March and August, are watched closely by North Korea and are related to preparations for Seoul to take back the wartime operational control (OPCON) of its forces from the U.S.

South Korea has called for a Full Operational Capability (FOC) test to be a key feature of the upcoming exercise for the envisioned OPCON transition, but a full assessment of the capability is expected to be difficult due to the current situation.

During the summertime exercise held in August 2019, Seoul and Washington conducted an initial operational capability (IOC) test, and their defense ministers decided to move on to the FOC test. Following the FOC test, the two sides will carry out a Full Mission Capability (FMC) test.

The Seoul government seeks to retake the OPCON under the current Moon Jae-in administration whose term will end in May 2022, though the transition is not time-based but conditions-based.

In this file photo, taken on Feb. 24, 2020, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo (R) and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper hold a joint press conference at the Pentagon in Washington. (Yonhap)

In this file photo, taken on Feb. 24, 2020, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo (R) and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper hold a joint press conference at the Pentagon in Washington. (Yonhap)


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Korea-US Alliance Foundation August Newsletter (Aug. 2020)

Download: KUSAF news-2020 August


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Yonhap – S. Korea to develop Iron Dome-like interceptor system against N.K. long-range artillery

By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Aug. 10 (Yonhap) — South Korea will begin developing its own interceptor system like Israel’s Iron Dome in the next five years to defend the country’s core infrastructure in the capital area against North Korea’s long-range artillery threats, the defense ministry said Monday.

Unveiling its defense blueprint for 2021-2025, the ministry also said it will officially begin procedures to acquire a light aircraft carrier next year and start the production of a homegrown fighter jet which is currently under development.

The defense program calls for spending 300.7 trillion won (US$253 billion), a 6.1 percent on-year hike on average over the next five years. Of the total, 100 trillion won was allocated for improving defense capabilities, while the remaining 200 trillion won was set for force management.

“When we talk about South Korea’s missile defense system, it usually refers to one targeting North Korea’s Scud-type or stronger missiles, whereas this new interceptor system will focus on protecting the capital area against the North’s long-range artillery such as its 240-mm or 300-mm multiple rocket launchers,” a ministry official said.

The actual deployment of the Korean version of Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system is expected to be put into force in the late 2020s or early 2030s, officials said.

South Korea will also begin developing long-range air-to-surface and air-to-ship guided missiles to be loaded on the indigenous fighter jets.

When the production of the fighter jet is complete, South Korea will become the 13th country in the world to own a homegrown combat plane, the ministry said.

South Korea launched the 8.8 trillion-won KF-X project in 2016 to develop the homegrown fighter by 2026 to replace the country’s aging fleet of F-4 and F-5 aircraft.

Last week, the arms procurement agency said it has produced a prototype of an advanced radar system, a key part of the envisioned jet.

For the Navy, the ministry said the country will begin building 3,600-ton and 4,000-ton submarines during the period.

A ministry official said the government plans to load submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on the new submarines, adding that whether they will be nuclear-powered has yet to be decided.

Following the recent revision in the country’s missile guidelines, South Korea will also push to develop a space rocket to launch small-sized satellites.

Last month, South Korea announced that it has become able to develop solid-propellant space rockets under the new missile guidelines with the United States, saying the deal is expected to help sharply improve the military’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

South Korea plans to put military surveillance satellites and unmanned reconnaissance planes into operation by 2025. It will also begin developing ultra-small satellites during the period to realize near real-time monitoring of the Korean Peninsula.

“The ministry will continue to cooperate with the monetary authorities to successfully push for the 2021-2025 defense plan,” it said in a release.

In this file photo, taken on March 2, 2020, and released by the North's official Korean Central News Agency the next day, multiple projectiles are launched during a long-range artillery drill by the North Korean army's long-range artillery sub-units. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspected the drill. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

In this file photo, taken on March 2, 2020, and released by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency the next day, multiple projectiles are launched during a long-range artillery drill by the North Korean army’s long-range artillery sub-units. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspected the drill. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

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WSJ – U.S.-South Korea Military Exercises Stay Digital, as North Korean Threat Grows

President Trump’s directive two years ago to scale back field drills means most rank-and-file soldiers haven’t experienced combined maneuvers

By Andrew Jeong

SEOUL – The U.S. and South Korea plan to start their third major combined military exercise using computer simulations as early as next week, two years after President Trump ordered field drills be scaled back.
The move to digital drills means that most rank-and-file soldiers from the U.S. and South Korea haven’t physically conducted a combined exercise for a violent confrontation with the Kim Jong Un regime, which has continued to advance its weapons arsenal. Seoul’s military largely consists of draftees serving 18-month stints, while most American troops typically spend just a year based in South Korea.
The field drills were last conducted in early 2018 and involved tens of thousands of military personnel. They featured beach-storming marines and rumbling tanks. Now, the exercises unfold indoors in front of computer monitors. The digital drills require the involvement of just several thousand people, according to defense officials.
“There’s definitely a loss to preparedness,” said Oh Yeon-goon, a retired South Korean air force general. The yearly drills keep the combined U.S.-South Korean forces synchronized and accustomed to serving under the same chain of command, Mr. Oh said.
General Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, said last month at a public event that his troops had “leveraged modified training events” to maintain readiness despite the reduction in exercises. The two allies have been conducting smaller-scale training, including an event involving special forces from both countries late last year.
After meeting Mr. Kim for the first time at a summit in Singapore in 2018, Mr. Trump, to the surprise of some of his own defense officials, abruptly said U.S.-South Korean military drills would be scaled back or suspended. The president has called the exercises “ridiculous and expensive.” Pyongyang has often lashed out against the combined training, viewing it even now as part of a U.S. “hostile” policy against the regime.
The lost training means the two countries will have less understanding of each other’s capabilities and weapons systems, eroding the mutual trust that is essential to fighting shoulder-to-shoulder should a war erupt, according to recently retired South Korean military officials.
Van Jackson, who served as a defense policy adviser in the Obama administration, said the U.S. has yet to receive any benefit from North Korea for suspending the field drills beyond Mr. Trump’s friendship with Mr. Kim.
“There are smart strategic reasons for suspending exercises if it buys you goodwill that you then turn into negotiating momentum,” Mr. Jackson said. “But that’s not what’s been happening in Korea.”
Over the past two years, the North has become a bigger threat to the U.S. and South Korea, military analysts say. Pyongyang has resumed its cycle of weapons testing and provocations as nuclear talks with Washington have stalled.
The North began its own summer military exercise in July, firing antiship missiles designed to hit U.S. and allied warships, South Korea’s military said. Last year, it showcased missiles resembling Russia’s Iskander missiles, that can hit U.S. bases in Korea, better evade existing American and South Korean missile defense systems, and carry nuclear warheads. The Kim regime has also resumed testing older ballistic missiles.
Mr. Kim, at an anniversary speech last week celebrating the end of the Korean War, declared that the nation’s nuclear program had ensured the “security and future of our state will be guaranteed forever.”
Gen. Abrams last month said this increased diversity and evolution of North Korea’s missile capabilities meant U.S. and South Korean forces needed to beef up their missile defenses.
In the past, the computerized simulations presented scenarios, like a surprise North Korean military attack against South Korea, or an internal Kim regime crisis that may warrant an allied intervention, recently retired South Korean military officials say.
In the upcoming drills, participants will be wearing masks and enforcing social distancing, as precautions against the virus, defense officials said. A similar computer exercise scheduled in the springtime this year was indefinitely postponed as coronavirus cases surged in South Korea. Seoul has now flattened the virus curve, with daily infections remaining in the double digits, in a country of 51 million.
A recent U.S. military think-tank analysis questioned America’s military preparedness in the Asia Pacific. U.S. forces are too concentrated in Japan and South Korea and need to be boosted in South and Southeast Asia, according to a July report from the Strategy Studies Institute, which is affiliated with the U.S. Army.
The current U.S. setup could be sufficient for a large-scale clash with North Korea, though it is “grossly inadequate for either hypercompetition or armed hostilities” with China, according to the report.
The Kim regime’s increased firepower comes as military cost-sharing talks between the U.S. and South Korea have strained relations. Seoul and Washington’s cost-sharing pact expired Dec. 31 and the two have yet to agree on how to divvy up the costs for stationing 28,500 U.S. military personnel in South Korea-home to America’s largest overseas military base. The U.S., at an earlier point in talks, had requested South Korea boost its payments fivefold to $5 billion annually.
The military-cost discussions are being closely watched by Tokyo, whose own arrangement with Washington expires next year. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono bristled at the notion the country’s payment could balloon in size.
“If we pay more, then the U.S. forces in Japan will become something like mercenaries, and I don’t think anyone wants to do this,” Mr. Kono said. Japan is home to 54,000 U.S. military personnel.
-Alastair Gale in Tokyo contributed to this article.
Write to Andrew Jeong at
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Yonhap – N. Korea pursues long-range nuclear missiles through ‘deliberate testing program’: Pentagon official

By Oh Seok-min

SEOUL/WASHINGTON, Aug. 6 (Yonhap) — North Korea continues to push aggressively to develop long-range nuclear missiles capable of striking the U.S. homeland through a “very deliberate testing program” for systems improvement, a senior Pentagon official has said.

Victorino G. Mercado, assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities, made the remarks during the 2020 Space and Missile Defense Symposium held online on Tuesday (Washington time), according to the transcript posted on the Pentagon website on Thursday.

“North Korea has worked aggressively to develop nuclear-capable long-range ballistic missiles able to threaten the homeland, allies and partners,” Mercado said. “Despite our ongoing diplomatic efforts, North Korea continues to expand its ballistic missile capabilities and conduct test launches despite international restrictions.”

The official noted that while many often highlight its failed launches, the regime “has a very deliberate testing program where they push their technological limits, learn from failures and demonstrate continual improvement.”

This photo shows the test-firing of North Korea's Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile on Nov. 29, 2017. The photo was released by the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) later in the day. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

This photo shows the test-firing of North Korea’s Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile on Nov. 29, 2017. The photo was released by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) later in the day. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

As denuclearization negotiations between the United States and North Korea have made little progress since the no-deal summit in Hanoi last year, Pyongyang has been focusing on its missile and other conventional weapons such as multiple rocket launchers, though it has refrained from test-firing long-range missiles since 2017.

North Korea is believed to have several types of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), including the Hwasong-15 that is capable of striking any part of the U.S. mainland, according to data by the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

“U.S. missile defenses strengthen the leverage of our diplomats at the negotiating table, such as talks with North Korea on denuclearization, by demonstrating our ability to counter its threats of nuclear attack,” the assistant secretary said, adding that its missile defense system also serves as “insurance” against the possible failure of deterrence and diplomacy.

North Korea is believed to have secured a considerable level of technology to miniaturize a nuclear warhead for ballistic missiles, according to South Korea’s defense ministry. The U.N. also reportedly said in a recent classified paper that Pyongyang has probably developed miniaturized nuclear devices to fit into its ballistic missile warheads.

Late last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said that the country’s security and future will be guaranteed forever “thanks to our reliable and effective self-defense nuclear deterrence.”

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Donga – First U.N. report on N. Korea’s miniaturization of nuclear warheads

The United Nations published a report for the first time that North Korea might have completed the development of nuclear weapons miniaturized enough to be mounted on ballistic missiles.

Reuters reported that an independent panel of experts monitoring U.N. sanctions against North Korea submitted the interim report to the U.N. Security Council North Korea sanctions committee on Monday (local time). According to the report, multiple unidentified countries said North Korea’s past six nuclear tests had likely helped it develop miniaturized nuclear devices.

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is continuing its nuclear program, including the production of highly enriched uranium and construction of an experimental light water reactor. A Member State assessed that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is continuing production of nuclear weapons,” the report said. It added that North Korea “may seek to further develop miniaturization in order to allow incorporation of technological improvements such as penetration aid packages or, potentially, to develop multiple-warhead systems.”

If indeed North Korea has succeeded the miniaturization of nuclear weapons, the country would be considered to have overcome major hurdles in the development of nuclear weapon systems as it could launch long-range missiles targeting the U.S., etc.

“North Korea’s miniaturization capabilities of nuclear weapons seem to have reached a significant level,” Moon Hong-sik, the deputy spokesperson of the Ministry of National Defense, said on the report during a regular briefing on Tuesday. “However, the South Korean government does not recognize the North as a nuclear state.”

Kyu-Jin Shin


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Stars & Stripes – Can you catch the coronavirus on a plane? It’s complicated

A sanitation crew works to disinfect the chartered Boeing 767 known as the Patriot Express at Osan Air Base, South Korea, July 14, 2020. MATTHEW KEELER/STARS AND STRIPES

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPESPublished: August 3, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea — The influx of American troops testing positive for the coronavirus after flying to South Korea and other U.S. bases highlights the dangers of air travel during the pandemic.

Nearly 82% of the 133 confirmed cases affiliated with U.S. Forces Korea have been service members or dependents moving to the peninsula for new assignments or returning from a trip abroad.

The overall USFK number is relatively low considering the Pentagon has reported that more than 27,000 troops globally have contracted the virus since the outbreak began earlier this year.

Still, the fact that all but 24 patients had traveled to the divided peninsula — mainly from the U.S. — warrants a look at the risks of flying and the best ways to mitigate them.

Can you catch it on a plane?

Airlines have measures in place to reduce the risk of in-flight germ transmission, including filtration systems that remove most airborne particles and a rapid turnover of air in the cabin.

Many also have implemented new coronavirus-specific rules including mandatory masks, limited interaction with flight attendants and reduced capacity.

“So far there’s no evidence that anybody definitely got it from the airplane,” said Qingyan Chen, an engineering professor at Purdue University who has researched disease transmission aboard aircraft.

Nor has it been ruled out since much remains to be studied about the virus, which first appeared in China late last year and has proven highly contagious.

“I don’t think there’s any virus in the air conditioning system supplied into the cabin,” Chen said in a recent telephone interview.

“But the infection doesn’t occur because of the air conditioning system. The infection occurs when your neighboring passenger coughs, talks or breathes,” he added.

Travelers also may be exposed to the virus during other parts of the transportation process starting with their ride to the airport.

“The whole United States now has rampant community transmissions,” said Paloma Beamer, president of the International Society of Exposure Science. “It could be in their communities before leaving. It could be on the flight. It could be at the airport.”

With little control over most aspects of travel, the best way for people to minimize the risk is to protect their personal space as much as possible, she said in a recent telephone interview.

Beamer, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Arizona, recommends multiple, shorter flights to decrease the need to use the lavatory and to lessen time spent on the same flight as somebody who may be infected.

“Duration is really important because the longer you’re breathing the air, the larger viral dose you would get,” she said.

Other suggestions:

• Avoid crowded lines for security and maintain distance from other people while waiting for the flight and boarding.

• Use plastic bags for tickets and passports that often need to change hands.

• Choose a window seat to minimize the number of people nearby.

• Bring sanitizing hand wipes to clean unavoidable surfaces such as seats, armrests and trays.

• Turn the ventilation above the seat to the highest level you can tolerate.

Quarantine requirements

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees that the risk of in-flight transmission is low but has recommended that Americans avoid all international travel during the pandemic.

“Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes,” the CDC says.

“However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights,” according to the agency. “This may increase your risk for exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.”

The Defense Department halted military moves in March but recently lifted restrictions for many locations, including South Korea, that have had success in slowing the virus’ spread.

Anticipating a surge of newcomers during the summer, USFK implemented a two-week quarantine process that begins the moment passengers get off the plane. Everybody is tested at least twice — upon arrival and before being allowed to leave quarantine.

Many service members travel on a government-chartered flight known as the Patriot Express, which originates in Seattle. Others take commercial flights.

USFK spokesman Col. Lee Peters said Monday that 23% of the new arrivals had negative results on the arrival test but positive on the second one required to exit quarantine.

The estimated median incubation period for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is five days.

“We don’t know where the people are catching COVID-19,” Peters said. “All we know is that we control our bubble, and when they come to South Korea we immediately take control of them.”

“They don’t have interaction with anyone on USFK installations or the local community,” he added.

The U.S. Transportation Command, which oversees the Patriot Express, said passengers and crew members undergo medical screenings and temperature checks prior to flight.

“We continue to evaluate these cases and are not aware of any confirmed transmissions of COVID-19 in-flight,” a spokesperson told Stars and Stripes in an email.

The directive to wear face coverings during the flights and inside air terminals applies to all military personnel, family members, contractors and civilian employees.

“Data from multiple sources indicate the risk of viral transmission in this environment is low,” the spokesperson said in response to questions.

Aircraft also are equipped with High Efficiency Particulate Air, or HEPA, filtration systems and a rapid turnover of air in the cabin.

“The system does not kill the virus but filters it out of the airstream,” the Transportation Command said.


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