North Korean Military Appears to Be on 'Lockdown' over Coronavirus, 4-Star Says

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man wearing a face mask Seoul, South Korea
A man wearing a face mask walks along a wall outside the Deoksu palace in downtown Seoul, South Korea, Friday, March 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

The North Korean regime only recently resumed training sorties after going weeks without flying an airplane, the top U.S. commander in South Korea said, indicating the hermit kingdom has been hit by the globally spreading novel coronavirus.

North Korea hasn't reported any cases of the coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19, which has spread worldwide. The country shares borders with China, where the illness originated, and South Korea, which has reported thousands of cases.

But Army Gen. Robert Abrams, head of U.S. Forces Korea, said there are indications the disease has also hit the North.

"It is a closed-off nation so we can't say emphatically that they have cases, but we're fairly certain they do," he said in a Friday teleconference with reporters. "But what I do know is that their armed forces have fundamentally been on lockdown for 30 days and only recently have they started routine training again."

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The regime went 24 days without flying a military plane, Abrams said. Training sorties have since resumed.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made two public appearances this week, Reuters reported, to oversee military training exercises. The first was Monday when Kim watched missile tests. He appeared again Thursday to observe an artillery exercise.

Photos show Kim attending the events without any protective gear during the outings, though his aides all wore the same black masks, likely to prevent exposure to the sometimes-deadly virus.

Abrams on Friday detailed the steps the U.S. military in South Korea has taken to limit COVID-19 exposure and spread.

Nine people connected to U.S. Forces Korea have tested positive for coronavirus, he said, including one service member, two active-duty dependents, and civilian employees and contractors.

Abrams credited the steps the military took to reduce outside exposure to the virus with limiting its spread. Commanders made bars, clubs, dine-in restaurants, movie theaters and large social gatherings off limits for American troops. They also limited base access, screened those entering any installations, introduced telework, and cut workforce to mission-essential personnel only.

"Our No. 1 priority is to protect the force, always," he said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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