Members of the Cheonghae naval unit recalled their nightmarish lives aboard the Munmu the Great, a destroyer where a COVID-19 outbreak started July 2, in an anonymous interview with the Ministry of National Defense’s joint press corps Friday.
The number of confirmed cases increased by scores daily in the cramped space of the vessel, where social distancing was practically impossible and quarantine was meaningless.
Those complaining of COVID-19 symptoms are said to have taken turns using the few sickbeds onboard. The captain reportedly held out on a ventilator. There were testimonies that a member coughed up bloody phlegm and that Tylenol was the only medication available after other medicines ran short. Crew members would fall asleep groaning in pain.
Munmu the Great was dispatched in February, about a year after the coronavirus pandemic began in South Korea, but the military authorities and the government spent the next five months doing nothing to prevent an outbreak. They did not draw up a vaccination plan from the beginning. The outbreak is said to have been reported to the national defense minister only after the number of cases surpassed 100. As a result, 90 percent or 271 members of the vessel’s 301-strong crew have been infected with the virus. This is a disaster that blemishes the country’s military history.
While the Cheonghae crew fought for life on the destroyer in the open sea, the presidential office, or Cheong Wa Dae, was given to glorifying President Moon Jae-in and making him into a hero.
Park Soo-hyun, Moon’s senior secretary for public communication, said, “President Moon instructed the military to dispatch an aerial refueling and transport aircraft, a measure no one else could figure out, upon receiving a related report at the Cheong Wa Dae staff meeting.”
Park also said it was none other than Moon who gave direct instructions to the military to act quickly and evacuate all the sailors swiftly and safely.
Cheong Wa Dae is allowed to spruce up the president’s words and deeds to some extent. Be that as it may, Park’s remarks were overdone given the seriousness of the issue. He does not know the half of public opinion regarding the outbreak.
As a matter of fact, the idea of dispatching a transport aircraft -- something only Moon thought of, according to Park -- was already part of a contingency plan drawn up by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in June.
However, that document is not necessary to refute Park’s remarks. From a common-sense standpoint, only an aircraft could have been used to evacuate the Cheonghae crew from the destroyer stationed in waters off Africa. If Moon had not come up with the idea, what else would the government have done? Brought the sailors back home on a raft?
It is absurd, too, to give Moon of all people undue credit for thinking quickly in a crisis. In an emergency situation like this, there are few conceivable options but swift evacuation. That is obvious. It is questionable if this is worth being played up.
Referring to the order to evacuate the crew by air, the Ministry of National Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff said it was an example of “our shining military diplomacy that induced a local country there to cooperate actively (with the evacuation).”
They trumpeted it as the country’s first overseas medical evacuation to have been carried out in such a short time. They tried to package the suspension of a mission due to a failure to prevent a coronavirus outbreak as a successful evacuation operation.
Moon said the military responded in its own way but that something was wanting in the eyes of the people. His remarks do not show any serious self-examination in asking what went wrong. They can be taken to mean that the military responded well to an unavoidable catastrophe.
But the infection cluster within the Cheonghae unit was preventable. It was a disgrace to the international prestige of Korea, something that took many years to build. Nevertheless, the military and Cheong Wa Dae praised the president. They are not only incompetent but also shameless.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com