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20 Jul, 2021 08:17

South Korean PM apologizes as 250 seamen test positive on Covid-ridden destroyer, 12 in critical condition

South Korean PM apologizes as 250 seamen test positive on Covid-ridden destroyer, 12 in critical condition

South Korea’s prime minister and defense minister have issued an apology for government failings as hundreds of Covid-19-positive sailors were flown to Seoul after their navy destroyer was plagued by the virus.

“I apologize for having failed to take better care of the health of our soldiers who devoted themselves to the country,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told a government meeting on Tuesday, vowing to take better care of the seamen. Kim promised treatment and recovery support for the crew, 12 of whom are in critical condition. 

The prime minister’s comments were reinforced by Defense Minister Suh Wook who apologized for not vaccinating the sailors before they embarked on their eight-month counter-piracy mission. The vessel, ‘Munmu the Great’, carrying 301 unvaccinated crew, departed for the Gulf of Aden in early February, weeks before South Korean authorities kicked off their national immunization campaign against Covid-19. 

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The defense ministry said it had considered the vaccination of overseas troops but elected against it, claiming it would be infeasible given limited resources and cold chain requirements for vaccines. Suh said the ministry would now re-examine the country’s policy for all overseas military units in the context of Covid-19. 

Amid pressure to fire Suh, President Moon Jae-in said he accepted criticism over the “insufficient, complacent” handling of the issue and had ordered a re-evaluation of anti-coronavirus measures for those in the military and overseas diplomatic service. 

Nearly 250 of the 301 crew have tested positive for the virus, making it the country’s largest Covid-19 cluster. All 301 were repatriated on Tuesday, with some requiring treatment. The critically ill have been taken to hospital, while others have been taken to treatment and isolation centers.

The cause of the outbreak is uncertain, although some Korean news reports have blamed contaminated food brought on board while docked in the Gulf of Aden.  

The seamen have been replaced with a 200-strong immunized crew who will steer the destroyer back to Korea over the next 50 days. 

South Korea is currently facing its worst Covid-19 outbreak and only 31.7% of the country’s 52 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

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