Gates to Explore Strides in Security Relationship With South Korea
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SEOUL, South Korea, June 2, 2008 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here today to discuss developments in the U.S.-Republic of Korea security relationship and officiate at tomorrow’s change of command ceremonies at U.S. Forces Korea.
Timing his trip to be here as Army Gen. Burwell “B.B.” Bell transfers command to Army Gen. Walter Sharp, Gates told reporters he intends to focus during his visit on changes in the long-standing alliance here and visit troops stationed along the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea.
Gates said he and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee will meet for breakfast before tomorrow’s ceremony to discuss their mutual interest in broadening the relationship beyond the Korean peninsula to regional and global issues.
The secretary cited South Korea’s “increasing role and prominence” in a variety of activities. These range from its roles in Iraq and Lebanon and possible return to Afghanistan to trilateral engagement with the United States and Japan, including the first trilateral exercise this summer.
“They are pretty engaged around the world,” Gates said of the South Korean military. “But I think there are opportunities for further cooperation.”
Gates said he plans to “reaffirm the path forward” in the realignment and relocation of U.S. forces south of Seoul and the transition of wartime control to a South Korean joint military command in April 2012.
As the transition occurs, the U.S.-led Combined Forces Command, U.S. Forces Korea will become a U.S. joint warfighting headquarters that takes a supporting role to the South Korean armed forces during both armistice and war.
Meanwhile, the United States is preparing to move its U.S. Forces Korea headquarters, now in downtown Seoul, and 2nd Infantry Division, creating two hubs south of the Han River.
Gates called the move “a huge undertaking” that also includes restructuring U.S. forces and creating a brigade combat team that will provide additional capability.
While it’s not a top agenda item for the visit, Gates said, talks here could include the possibility of extending U.S. assignments here to three-year, accompanied tours.
“It is something that personally I think is overdue,” he said. “I don’t see a reason why our troops in Korea should have unaccompanied tours any more.”
Gates conceded that such a move would require construction of family housing and other logistical considerations, but said that “as a matter of principle, I think it is past time.”
Gates expressed confidence that Sharp, previous director of the Joint Staff with past duty in Korea, brings the experience and organizational and management skills required to oversee the myriad initiatives under way or being contemplated here.
“I think General Sharp’s experience on the Joint Staff and his … organizational skills give him some special talents in this job for the next couple or three years,” he said.
Gates presented Sharp his fourth star during a ceremony today.
After tomorrow’s change of command, Gates will travel to the DMZ to assess changes since his last visit 25 years ago. But primarily, Gates said, he wants to visit with the troops serving along the line that divides the two Koreas. “They are on a front line also and serve in some difficult circumstances,” he said.
Although it’s not an agenda item during Gates’ breakfast meeting with Lee, the issue of the Six-Party Talks aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear program could arise, he said.
Gates called reports that North Korea may be close to producing a declaration of its nuclear programs “a good thing.” Ongoing diplomatic talks with North Korea through the six-party framework are worthwhile, he said, “as long as the North Koreans continue to do their part and fulfill the commitments that they have made.”