South Korea Mission Strategically Important, Officials Say

WASHINGTON, March 28, 2012 — U.S. forces in South Korea help to sus­tain an impor­tant alliance, deter an unpre­dictable threat and sup­port the nation­al defense strategy’s shift toward the Asia-Pacif­ic region, senior defense offi­cials told Con­gress today.

Peter Lavoy, act­ing assis­tant sec­re­tary of defense for Asian and Pacif­ic secu­ri­ty affairs, tes­ti­fied along with Army Gen. James D. Thur­man, com­man­der of U.S. Forces Korea, before the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee in a hear­ing exam­in­ing the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion on the Kore­an penin­su­la.

“For over 60 years, the Unit­ed States has main­tained a pres­ence on the Kore­an penin­su­la to deter aggres­sion against … [South Korea] and to fight and win, should deter­rence fail,” Lavoy said.

The U.S.-South Kore­an alliance con­tin­ues to be a cor­ner­stone of U.S. region­al strat­e­gy, and depart­ment and mil­i­tary lead­ers will con­tin­ue to strength­en that alliance, make U.S. forces there more effi­cient and effec­tive, and enhance pres­ence, pow­er pro­jec­tion and deter­rence in the region, he added.

Lavoy said North Korea’s “provoca­tive behav­ior” con­tin­ues to present a seri­ous threat to the Unit­ed States, its allies, and the region. He not­ed that North Korea has a large con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary and is pur­su­ing bal­lis­tic mis­sile and weapons-of-mass-destruc­tion pro­grams, includ­ing ura­ni­um enrich­ment.

In response to that threat, he said, the U.S. and South Kore­an gov­ern­ments and mil­i­taries are work­ing to strength­en strate­gic capa­bil­i­ties, fur­ther inte­grate oper­a­tions and work from an alliance per­spec­tive to meet cur­rent and emerg­ing threats.

The two coun­tries have a com­pre­hen­sive plan under the Strate­gic Alliance 2015 frame­work to tran­si­tion wartime oper­a­tional con­trol from the U.S.-South Kore­an com­bined forces com­mand to the South Kore­an joint chiefs of staff by Decem­ber 2015, Lavoy told the pan­el. The tran­si­tion will allow South Korea to lead its nation­al defense while main­tain­ing an endur­ing U.S. defense com­mit­ment and capa­bil­i­ty, he said.

In line with the strate­gic agree­ment, U.S. forces will con­sol­i­date and relo­cate from the met­ro­pol­i­tan area of the South Kore­an cap­i­tal of Seoul to cen­tral­ized loca­tions south of the city, he said. The move will improve effi­cien­cy, reduce costs, and enhance force pro­tec­tion by plac­ing most ser­vice mem­bers and equip­ment out­side the effec­tive range of North Kore­an artillery, Lavoy told the com­mit­tee.

Thur­man said the U.S.-South Kore­an rela­tion­ship is “the finest mil­i­tary part­ner­ship I have expe­ri­enced in my 37-year career.”

As the demo­c­ra­t­ic, wealth­i­er south­ern neigh­bor of a closed-off North Korea, Thur­man said, South Korea faces the threat of attack or provo­ca­tion that can come with lit­tle or no warn­ing.

“Our deter­rent capa­bil­i­ty is based on U.S. and [South Kore­an] mil­i­tary readi­ness, and this is my pri­ma­ry focus,” the gen­er­al said. “I have con­duct­ed a thor­ough review, includ­ing two com­bined exer­cis­es, and I have deter­mined our forces remain ready to defend the … Kore­an penin­su­la.”

Both mil­i­taries are well-equipped, well-trained and pro­fes­sion­al, Thur­man said, while the alliance is strong and the U.S. pres­ence pro­vides a sta­bi­liz­ing influ­ence in the region.

“I think just by hav­ing a for­ward pres­ence, that is a calm­ing effect,” he added.

His forces train to respond to chem­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal as well as con­ven­tion­al weapons attacks, Thur­man said, and work hand in hand with South Kore­an forces on cyber defense.

“I have come to real­ize that cyber is a key warfight­ing domain,” he said. “It is [as] impor­tant as our air, mar­itime and ground oper­a­tions.”

Thur­man said he would wel­come pro­duc­tive talks between the Unit­ed States and North Korea, “but my sense is the [approach they have] tak­en with their mil­i­tary-first pol­i­cy is not going to change.”

Thur­man said his force num­bers and equip­ment are able to meet the mis­sion, but he acknowl­edged he’d like to see some adjust­ments. While he has enough troops, the stan­dard one-year tour junior ser­vice mem­bers serve in South Korea cre­ates a “churn” of 600 to 700 men and women arriv­ing or leav­ing each month, he said.

“So I have asked [Gen. Ray­mond T. Odier­no, Army chief of staff] and the Army to look at how we can build readi­ness at best val­ue, and see what we can do,” he said. “And I’m very mind­ful of the cost, and I don’t want to cre­ate a require­ment that is not oper­a­tional­ly focused.”

The gen­er­al said he’d also like to increase his air capa­bil­i­ties.

“We do not have a full com­bat avi­a­tion brigade there,” Thur­man not­ed. “I have asked the depart­ment as well as the Depart­ment of the Army and back through [U.S. Pacif­ic Com­mand] and the Joint Staff to look at adding that bat­tal­ion back that was repo­si­tioned out of there to meet require­ments for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Thur­man empha­sized his forces feel a sense of sat­is­fac­tion in their mis­sion.

“I think what makes Korea unique is we have a threat to the north. We have a well-stat­ed mis­sion. And I have not seen a decline [in] any morale issues,” he said. “This requires active lead­ers, lead­ers that are sen­si­tive to the needs of their ser­vice mem­bers. And that’s where I put my effort in mak­ing sure that, if there [are] any qual­i­ty-of-life issues, then we quick­ly try to resolve that.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)