U.S. Forces Korea Strengthens Alliance of Hope
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 26, 1999 Forty-five years after an armistice ended fighting on the Korean Peninsula, the need for United States-backed deterrence and defense remains critical to Asian stability in general and South Korea in particular. Training side-by-side, U.S. and Republic of Korea combat units prepare for war but hope for peace.
From the beginning, the U.S. military presence in South Korea has been based on a Republic of Korea-United States defense partnership. U.S. troops first entered Korea shortly after World War II to accept the surrender of Japanese forces south of the 38th parallel. The Soviet Union took the Japanese surrender north of the parallel, which divides the Peninsula at its "waist."
Although the allies had agreed at Cairo in 1943 that Korea would be a free and independent nation, the Soviets soon sealed the 38th parallel, splitting the country in two. The United Nations supervised democratic elections in the South, but Russia appointed Kim-Il-Sung leader in the North. With these arbitrary political lines drawn, the United States and Soviet Union pulled their occupation forces from the peninsula. By mid-1949, only a small U.S. advisory group remained to help train the new South Korean defensive force.
Nobody in America thought much about Korea until war broke out one year later. Nobody would forget what followed. The three-year conflict claimed more than 140,000 U.S. casualties, including more than 33,000 killed in action. Although an armistice ended outright hostilities in 1953, to this day North Korea remains committed to a forced reunification of the peninsula under communist rule.
U.S. Forces Korea is an outgrowth of the legal and moral security commitment the United States made to South Korea at the time of the war. Under U.N. Security Council resolutions of 1950, the United States leads the United Nations Command. The Republic of Korea-United States Mutual Security Agreement of 1954 committed both nations to assist each other in case of outside attack.
The partnership was further strengthened in 1978 by establishment of the Combined Forces Command, an integrated headquarters responsible for planning the defense of South Korea and directing combat forces to defeat enemy aggression. Today, U.S. Forces Korea operates as a joint headquarters through which American combat forces would be sent to the Combined Forces Command fighting components. According to the Army commander of U.S. Forces Korea, the mission has not changed in 45 years.
"Since 65 percent of North Korea's forces are forward deployed within 100 kilometers of the DMZ, we must constantly be wary and watchful," U.S. Army Gen. John Tilelli Jr. said. "Every day, the combined Republic of Korea-U.S. alliance stands vigilant -- ready to fight and win should the North Korean leadership launch an attack. North Korea understands that it is the combined ROK and U.S. alliance that prevents them from achieving their ultimate goal of unifying the Korean Peninsula under a communist regime."
Tilelli, who also commands the Combined Forces Command and serves as commander in chief of United Nations Command, said the threat from the North hasn't diminished over time. North Korea has made steady progress in its surface-to-surface missile capability, he said, and existing Scud missiles allow North Korea to target all of South Korea.
In August 1998, North Korea launched a two-stage missile, the Taepo Dong 1, revealing its growing offensive capability. The launch demonstrated that the North now threatens Japan and U.S. bases located there as well, Tilelli said. He said the North continues on a course of developing longer-range missiles that may threaten other nations in the region, as well.
American intelligence assessments confirm North Korea also could launch chemical weapons against the South. Virtually all North Korean fire support systems can deliver chemical weapons, and the North has chemical defense units and trains for operations in a chemical environment.
Tilelli said U.S. Forces Korea also is well equipped and trained to operate in a chemically contaminated environment. "With adequate warning time, we would be able to mitigate the impact of a chemical strike," he said. "However, in a surprise attack scenario, chemical munitions would present a significant operational difficulty to military forces and greatly affect the South Korean people."
Tilelli said he believes, however, that North Korea probably wouldn't use biological weapons unless it could protect its own forces. Nonetheless, U.S. Forces Korea was one of the first organizations to begin anthrax inoculations in September 1998 after Defense Secretary William S. Cohen made the shots mandatory across DoD. "The men and women serving in Korea understand that should an adversary employ an anthrax agent, we would not have time to inoculate the force," Tilelli said. "So this is a prudent step."
Any North Korean attack of the South would be met with an "overwhelming" response from the combined ROK-U.S. forces, Tilelli said. He said the combined forces have demonstrated "the appropriate military response" during past provocations and offer the right mix of capabilities to repel any attack.
"U.S. forces bring a range of intelligence gathering, command and control and precision strike systems to the alliance," Tilelli said. "Factor this in with the approximately 700,000 South Korean members of the armed forces, and the command stands strong and ready to deal with the formidable North Korean military machine."
About 35,700 U.S. service members are assigned to Korea at any given time. Another 4,000 civilian employees are stationed there. Components include the Eighth U.S. Army, Seventh Air Force, U.S. Naval Force Korea, U.S. Marine Forces Korea and Special Operations Command-Korea. Major subordinate units include the 2nd Infantry Division, 8th and 51st Fighter Wings, 19th Theater Army Area Command, and signal, military police and intelligence brigades.
Some 4,200 Korean soldiers serve with Eighth Army units as fully integrated members. "We couldn't do the job without them," Tilelli said.
In addition, the Navy's 7th Fleet and 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa train and exercise with USFK units year-round.
Training in Korea differs from what you'd find, for example, at Fort Hood, Texas. "We operate in a combined command where two languages, two military structures and two cultures work side-by- side," Tilelli explained. "Fundamentally, we train 'joint and combined' every day. We strengthen the ROK-U.S. alliance as we work and train together as one team."
Tilelli said the United States must be sensitive to host-nation conditions, as well, in Korea. "Korea has become increasingly urbanized in the last 10 years, and there are few available ranges and areas where we can operate and train unencumbered," he said. "Both ROK and U.S. forces must work out range schedules thoroughly so we maximize the available training areas."
That said, training is nearly constant for Korea-based American units, leading to a high state of readiness, the general said. The 95 percent annual turnover rate requires training plans that meet individual and collective unit readiness objectives. "We are able to fire our weapon systems, dive our tracks and fly our helicopters on average more than many continental United States- based units," he said. "In essence, our units are constantly training to ensure they are ready to fight and win."
North Korea's unpredictability strengthens the ROK-U.S. alliance, Tilelli said. "This alliance has stood the test of time," he said. "We gather strength from the knowledge that an unpredictable North Korea is poised in a threatening and offensive stance just a few miles away."
During a visit to the DMZ in January 1998, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen called Korea "perhaps hottest flash point in the world. As long as tensions remain high, we have to have a strong deterrent."
Returning to Korea Jan. 14, Cohen praised the efforts of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung to negotiate peaceful solutions with the North.
"We're living in a period of opportunity and risk," he said. "President Kim's policy of engaging North Korea and the four-party talks [United States, China and the two Koreas] raise the possibility of diplomatic progress for reconciliation and peace."
However, North Korea's missile development program and resistance to outside inspection of a possible nuclear arms plant "threaten to frustrate that promise," he said. "In the face of this uncertainty, our policy is and must remain clear and unwavering. We will maintain a strong deterrent as we pursue dialogue with North Korea. But hopeful diplomacy rests on the reality of that deterrence, and our deterrence is stronger than ever."