South Korea is airlifting the entire crew from a navy destroyer off the coast of East Africa after hundreds of sailors tested positive for the coronavirus in the military’s worst outbreak of the pandemic.
Two top government officials apologized on Tuesday for the outbreak, in which at least 247 out of 301 sailors have contracted the virus. None of the crew had been vaccinated. Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told a meeting of health officials that he was “very sorry for failing to carefully take care of the health of our soldiers.”
In separate remarks, Defense Minister Suh Wook also apologized and said he would look into ways to improve antivirus measures for service members overseas.
Two military planes have been dispatched to transport the sailors back to South Korea, where they will be sent to hospitals or quarantine facilities after arriving on Tuesday.
The ship, Munmu the Great, departed for the Gulf of Aden on an eight-month antipiracy mission in early February, shortly before South Korea began its vaccination campaign. Officials say logistical issues made it to difficult to supply the sailors with vaccines, but opposition lawmakers say the government should have made a greater effort. They also accused the government of not taking the outbreak seriously enough when it began earlier this month.
The military has not said what caused the outbreak, though there have been suggestions that it could be linked to a stop at an unspecified harbor in the area in late June.
An immunized replacement crew will steer the ship back to home waters, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, while a different destroyer is on its way to the region to continue the antipiracy mission.
The outbreak on the ship has drawn public anger in South Korea, which is already grappling with a fourth wave of infections and a stalled vaccination campaign.
At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, President Moon Jae-in said that although the military had acted quickly to bring the sailors home, “it wasn’t enough in the eyes of the Korean people, and criticism for taking the situation lightly would be unavoidable.”