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President under fire over responsibility for infection cluster in Cheonghae unit

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Members of the Cheonghae naval unit disembark from an air force transport plane at the Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, Tuesday. Yonhap
Members of the Cheonghae naval unit disembark from an air force transport plane at the Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, Tuesday. Yonhap

Conservative main opposition demands presidential apology, parliamentary investigation

By Nam Hyun-woo

Criticism is mounting from the conservative opposition that President Moon Jae-in is dodging responsibility as the commander-in-chief of South Korea's armed forces, following a major COVID-19 infection cluster among members of the Cheonghae naval unit.

All members of the unit, which was on an anti-piracy mission in waters off Africa, returned home via specially-arranged multirole aircraft Tuesday due to the cluster outbreak. According to the Ministry of National Defense on Wednesday, 270 out of the 301 unit members tested positive for COVID-19, meaning that 90 percent of them were infected.

Hours before their return, Moon said on Tuesday, "It is difficult to deny that the military was negligent in handling the COVID-19 infections among members of the Cheonghae unit," ordering the ministry and relevant organizations to check the situations of other overseas units.

His remark was followed by apologies from Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum and Minister of National Defense Suh Wook, for their failure to respond adequately to the COVID-19 infections in the unit.

President Moon Jae-in salutes the national flag during a Cabinet meeting at Cheong Wa Dae, Tuesday. Courtesy of Cheong Wa Dae
President Moon Jae-in salutes the national flag during a Cabinet meeting at Cheong Wa Dae, Tuesday. Courtesy of Cheong Wa Dae

This admission stirred criticism that the President was dodging his responsibility, with the conservative main opposition People Power Party (PPP) demanding a parliamentary investigation into the government regarding the infection cluster.

PPP floor leader Kim Gi-hyeon said Wednesday, "the President should take all responsibility for state affairs," and that he needs to "make a direct apology to the public."

"The defense minister and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should be held responsible and sacked immediately," Kim said, adding if the President refuses to do so, the National Assembly will propose a bill for their immediate replacement.

A group of PPP lawmakers who are members of National Assembly National Defense Committee argued that they requested the defense ministry to vaccinate naval unit members and other officers who serve in closed environments as a priority, but they claim that the ministry "lied" and did not provide vaccines to the Cheonghae unit.

"A family member of one dispatched serviceman said that the ill service members of the Cheonghae unit were only given flu medicine, even though their fevers were reaching 40 degrees Celsius," said Rep. Ha Tae-keung, who is a member of the committee.

Following the criticism, the Presidential senior secretary for public communication, Park Soo-hyun, said that the President was sorry for the incident.

"President Moon said that the military was negligent in handling the unit's COVID-19 infection cases, and, given the fact that he is the commander-in-chief, this consequently means that he is taking the case humbly," Park said in an interview with YTN radio, Wednesday.

"The President said that although the unit left for its overseas mission before the nation started its vaccination program, the government should have taken active measures afterwards. I believe he was saying this remark to himself," Park said.

Members of Cheonghae naval unit look out of the windows of a military bus as they are moved to a quarantine facility in Icheon, Gyeonggi Province, from the Seoul Air Base in Seongnam of the province, Tuesday. Yonhap
Members of Cheonghae naval unit look out of the windows of a military bus as they are moved to a quarantine facility in Icheon, Gyeonggi Province, from the Seoul Air Base in Seongnam of the province, Tuesday. Yonhap

According to a defense ministry report to the National Assembly, the unit discovered the first infected individual July 2, but did not report this situation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for more than a week. The number of sailors showing symptoms increased to 105 on July 11 and the unit then reported the situation to the JCS on July 12.

It took three more days for Minister Suh and JCS Chairman Won In-choul to order polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing of all of the unit members, which showed that more than 80 percent of the troops were infected.

Criticisms grew on Wednesday as the defense ministry praised its evacuation of the Cheonghae unit troops in a press release. Calling it an "Oasis operation," the ministry described the operation as "the biggest overseas medical evacuation operation ever, which accomplished its mission in the shortest period ever."

Despite the mounting backlash, Cheong Wa Dae is yet to release additional comments. Presidential spokesperson Park Kyung-mee said in a briefing on Wednesday that President Moon ordered his aides to express gratitude to the countries that aided in the evacuation, though she did not comment further.


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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