U.S. Forces In Korea Not Just Looking North

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Honolulu Advertiser
May 11, 2008 By Richard Halloran
U.S. forces in South Korea have begun a fundamental change in mission, shifting their focus away from defense against North Korea to take on regional responsibilities for protecting U.S. interests elsewhere, such as the Taiwan Strait and Southeast Asia. They could also intervene in unforeseen contingencies anyplace.
Like U.S. forces in Okinawa, which operate as far away as the Indian Ocean, Iraq and East Africa, American troops in South Korea could be sent anywhere and might not be available for the defense of South Korea. That includes forces earmarked for Korea in reserve in the U.S.
"The Korean government has been told that our forces can be deployed anywhere, anytime," said a senior U.S. officer. While the security treaty between the U.S. and South Korea will remain intact, South Korean forces should plan to rely on themselves to repel an assault from North Korea, the officer said.
This change in mission has been started for two reasons:
South Korean troops are capable of defending their nation, at least on the ground, without U.S. help against a North Korean force that, while large, has been gradually weakened by shortages of food, fuel and spare parts. It lacks sufficient training and is equipped mostly with weapons from the 1950s. South Korea might need some U.S. air and naval support.
U.S. forces, notably the Army and Marine Corps, have been stretched thin — some contend to the breaking point — by the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senior officers have warned that, while the U.S. has enough air and naval power to meet most contingencies, the U.S. would be unable to put large numbers of "boots on the ground." Troops in Korea might thus be needed to fill a gap.
Making U.S. forces in South Korea available for duty elsewhere has been made easier by a change in government in Seoul. Former President Roh Moo-hyun asserted that the U.S. could move troops out of South Korea only with his permission. In response, the U.S. withdrew 9,000 of the 37,000 U.S. troops there and was headed to something fewer than 20,000.
When the new president, Lee Myung-bak, met with President Bush at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., last month, he asked for a pause in those reductions. Bush agreed. Moreover, the U.S. has named a new commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, Army Gen. Walter Sharp, who will take over in Seoul next month.
Sharp is apprised of the current thinking on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, having served there for almost seven years, the past three as staff director. In South Korea, he was an assistant commander of the 2nd Infantry Division in the late 1990s.
U.S. and South Korean forces are in the early stages of a 10-year transition plan intended to turn over most defensive duties to South Koreans. In August, the two forces will conduct their first large-scale drill in which the Koreans for the first time will exercise command and control of forces throughout South Korea.
That training will continue for the next four years until the South Koreans take operational control, called OPCON in military lingo, of the forces in both peacetime and wartime in April 2012. They have peacetime OPCON now.
To do so, South Korea must invest heavily in communications gear for command and control and in sensors for surveillance and intelligence. A two-year intelligence transition began last month. The U.S. provides that apparatus and skilled operators now but an American officer said "we've told the Koreans we might not be available later."
During the overall transition, U.S. troops posted between Seoul and the boundary with North Korea, plus those in Seoul, will move 35 miles south of the capital to bases that will be expanded. A war-fighting headquarters will be set up and some weapon systems, such as F-16 fighter planes, will be upgraded. All this will cost up to $10 billion, with the split between the U.S. and South Korea being negotiated.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of a continuing U.S. commitment, American military people will be allowed to bring their families with them for three-year tours of duty, compared with the unaccompanied one-year tours today. Housing, schools, medical facilities and recreational amenities will be built for the 17,000 family members eventually expected.
Nodding toward the North Korean threat, a senior officer sought to be reassuring: "The families will be safe. They'll be out of North Korean artillery range."
Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia.