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SEOUL, Aug. 4 (Yonhap) — President Moon Jae-in instructed South Korea’s defense chief Wednesday to have prudent consultations with the United States on whether to stage their joint military exercise this month as scheduled.
Moon was holding a rare Cheong Wa Dae meeting with top military commanders. Attendees included Defense Minister Suh Wook and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Won In-choul, as well as the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
In a report on the drills scheduled to kick off next week, Suh said that the military is in consultations with the U.S. and health authorities, with “realistic conditions” including the COVID-19 situation considered, a Cheong Wa Dae official told reporters.
The president ordered the minister to consult with them “with prudence in consideration of various elements,” the official added on the customary condition of anonymity.
Last week, the two Koreas restored their direct communication lines, raising hopes for the resumption of dialogue. Days later, however, the North pressed the South to cancel the annual military training with the ally. The joint drill could undermine the move to put inter-Korean ties back on track, Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister who is in charge of inter-Korean affairs as a senior Workers’ Party official, said in a statement.
A group of lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party (DP), meanwhile, is conducting a signature campaign demanding the postponement of the joint military exercise on the condition that inter-Korean dialogue takes place.
“So far, around 60 lawmakers have signed the petition as of this afternoon,” said Rep. Jin Sung-joon of the party. “The document urges the government to actively consider delaying the drill on the condition that the two Koreas engage in dialogue.”
Some lawmakers from other minor parties, including the Open Democratic Party and Justice Party, have also joined the move, Jin added.
During the meeting with the top military leaders, Moon pointed out that South Korea’s military has lost public trust due to some recent incidents, while it has contributed to regional peace and the fight against COVID-19.
He raised the need for the military to start afresh in efforts to regain the trust of the people.
The president, in particular, said that the mass coronavirus infections among the nation’s Cheonghae Unit members have caused great concern to the people.
Most of the 301 Cheonghae Unit sailors aboard a Navy destroyer on anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden have been infected with the virus. The government came under strong criticism, as they remained unvaccinated.
The defense minister reported to Moon that 93.6 percent of the nation’s total 550,000 soldiers have received at least a dose of COVID-19 vaccines, with the provision of second doses to be completed by Friday, Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Park Kyung-mee said in a press briefing.
Moon noted that the military can set a precedent for herd immunity and ordered the minister to make sure that the training manuals against heat waves can be properly executed.
In connection with the death in late May of a female Air Force officer, who suffered sexual violence from her male colleague, the minister briefed Moon on measures to prevent a similar incident from recurring.
Moon said that it was a “serious incident that shocked the public” and that there were a lot of problems in handling it, including false reporting and a cover-up.