Blame game goes into high gear over infections on ship
The Defense Ministry announced Thursday that it will launch a probe of what led to the Covid-19 outbreak aboard the Munmu the Great destroyer, which infected 271 crewmembers airlifted back to Korea on Tuesday.
The outbreak led to an unprecedented cancellation of the 34th contingent’s mission in the Gulf of Aden, where the Cheonghae unit conducts peacekeeping and anti-piracy missions.
It has prompted criticism of the military for failing to protect the crew from infection.
According to a Defense Ministry source, the probe into the outbreak in the Cheonghae unit will be directed by the ministry’s own audit office, with two investigators from the military’s investigative headquarters and 10 ministry auditors tasked with examining allegations of missteps.
The probe is expected to last until Aug. 6, and will target the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), which directs overseas missions, the Navy’s strategic command, the Navy headquarters, the Armed Forces Medical Command, and the relevant departments of the Defense Ministry itself.
The audit is expected to address how the virus came aboard the Munmu the Great destroyer.
The announcement of the audit came as the Defense Ministry, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) and the Blue House have effectively held other government bodies responsible for the troops of the 34th contingent remaining unvaccinated and vulnerable to Covid-19 infection.
The apparent blame game began on Monday, when KDCA Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong pointed out that the outbreak aboard the Munmu went unrecognized even after large numbers of the crew began coming down with cold-like symptoms on July 1 because the 34th contingent was deployed only with 800 rapid-antibody tests, which all came up negative for Covid-19 on 40 crewmembers with symptoms.
Jeong said that the KDCA had previously issued a notice that antibody tests had a higher chance of showing false negative results – where an infected person tests negative – and that rapid-antigen tests were more accurate.
The commissioner also said that vaccines were not shipped to military units posted overseas because of the ultra-cold storage and transport requirements for certain vaccines.
Although the Defense Ministry explained that members of the 34th contingent were not vaccinated because the Munmu departed Korea on Feb. 8, almost a month before the military began vaccinating its personnel, the military’s own vaccination plan prioritized medical corps units and essential operations units — effectively de-prioritizing the Cheonghae unit, according to opposition People Power Party (PPP) lawmaker Lee Chae-ik.
Lee also said the KDCA told the ministry in a series of meetings in February and March that the country’s vaccination program would prioritize the domestic population.
The Defense Ministry said Wednesday it had distributed a directive in December that units vulnerable to Covid-19 exposure should use rapid-antigen tests – effectively blaming the JCS, which directs overseas missions, for not properly equipping the Cheonghae unit with the recommended type of test kits.
However, a JCS official who spoke to the JoongAng Ilbo on the condition of anonymity said, “We followed the Defense Ministry’s directive to the letter. If there was a problem, the ministry would have told us.”
He added, “Preparation for an overseas mission is the responsibility of each branch of the military,” thereby passing the buck to the Navy.
Meanwhile, PPP lawmaker Han Ki-ho said that the Defense Ministry reported to the National Assembly that it never requested cooperation from the United Nations or host countries to secure vaccines for overseas units, contrary to a promise by Defense Minister Suh Wook to do just that.
At a National Assembly hearing on Feb. 23, Suh told members of the legislature’s military and defense committee that the ministry would “make domestic preparations to distribute vaccines to overseas units” and “review the possibility to seek direct cooperation from host countries” of such units.
However, according to Han, five months after that pronouncement, the Defense Ministry had still not submitted a formal request for vaccine aid from mission partners or supplied the units with vaccines from Korea.
Han said the vaccination of other overseas units, such as the Akh unit in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Hanbit unit in South Sudan, was only achieved “because the UAE and the United Nations were proactive in offering cooperation with supplying vaccines [to Korean units].
“If vaccination [for those overseas units] was delayed, there is no guarantee that we wouldn’t have had a second or third Cheonghae unit-type mass outbreak on our hands.”
BY MICHAEL LEE, LEE CHEOL-JAE [firstname.lastname@example.org]