South Korea and the US have launched a joint panel to investigate the shipment of a possibly live anthrax sample to an American military base here, Seoul's Foreign Ministry said Sunday, more than a month after the incident was revealed and after weeks of protests by activists here.
In late May, 22 US servicemen were identified as having possibly come into contact with the lethal bacteria "inadvertently" sent to Osan Air Base in Gyeonggi Province by a military laboratory in Utah.
Though the US Forces Korea confirmed that none of them had shown signs of infection and the materials were immediately destroyed, the incident triggered rigorous protests by civic groups and public demands for a thorough fact-finding investigation.
The allies have set up a hotline and emergency co-operation mechanism since the mishap.
Set to kick off its mission by inspecting the Osan lab later this month, the joint working group consists of officials from two countries' defence, foreign, health, agriculture and food ministries and other related agencies, as well as private legal and microbiology experts. They will also draw up measures to forestall a future relapse.
The working group will be chaired by Maj. Gen. Chang Kyung-soo, director-general for policy planning at Seoul's Defence Ministry, and Maj. Gen. Robert Hedelund, commander of US Marine Corps Forces Korea, and will operate under the Korea-US Status of Forces Agreement Joint Committee, which is separately scheduled to convene Wednesday to discuss the issue.
"We've decided to create the working group for a more comprehensive and systematic review," the ministry said in a statement.
"This reflects our common understanding that we should dispel public concerns and safeguard the people's health and safety by meticulously verifying facts and devising steps to prevent similar delivery accidents."
But the announcement is unlikely to quell mounting calls for a revision of the SOFA, which governs the legal status of some 28,500 US troops stationed across South Korea, given the congressional approval and other lengthy and convoluted legal and administrative steps required for its amendment.
On Saturday, some 1,000 members of 40 civic organisations gathered in front of the air base, lambasting the US for the anthrax shipment and Seoul for its failure to acknowledge it and properly respond.
They demanded the SOFA regulations to be strengthened, citing the current Article 9 of the agreement stipulating that South Korea does not conduct inspections of US military cargo.
"South Korea is not a venue for the US' bacterial experiments," they chanted, demanding a halt of Washington's ongoing bioscience project here and a closure of related facilities within the compound.
Better known as the JUPITR programme, the Joint US Forces Korea Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition has been underway for two years at US military bases in South Korea as part of Washington's strategy to advance biosurveillance capabilities on the peninsula while rebalancing military assets toward the Asia-Pacific.
May's laboratory biological defence training, which the USFK said took place for the first time, was designed to boost the allies' peninsula security capacity by testing existing and new systems that could better identify and detect toxins and pathogens in the environment.
"A revision of the SOFA itself or its annexes will be challenging chiefly because it will need to pass US Congress and thus take a long time. But the SOFA committee could manage to come up with certain binding agreements such as an agreed recommendation," a Foreign Ministry official told The Korea Herald on the customary condition of anonymity.
Defence Minister Han Min-koo also said at a parliamentary questioning last month that though further details were to be examined, the issue will be better complemented by an agreed recommendation, rather than an adjustment to SOFA, and reinforced information sharing between the two nations' militaries.
During his recent visit to Osan, he reaffirmed Seoul's commitment to the joint biochemical initiative, saying "As long as North Korea has chemical warfare capabilities and the threats exist, the JUPITR programme should continue to be developed to counter them."
South Korea's intelligence authorities believe that the communist country has long invested in building clandestine germ arsenals involving anthrax and smallpox.
Melissa Hanham, a senior fellow at the Washington-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said last week that a bio-pesticides research institute in Pyongyang appears to be capable of churning out "regular, military-sized batches of biological weapons" including anthrax.
After analysing images released by state media after a visit by leader Kim Jong-un last month, she said the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute was generally thought to produce insecticides but was in fact being used as an "old and well-used cover for a biological weapons programme."
Pyongyang's state media dismissed the claim on Saturday as a "foolish attempt" by South Korea and the US to dilute criticism in the wake of the anthrax blunder.