Normalized Tours, Wartime Control Transfer to Enhance U.S.-Korean Alliance
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 8, 2008 Efforts to lengthen U.S. military tours in South Korea to three years and to turn wartime operational control of South Korea forces to their own military are on track and moving full-speed ahead, the top U.S. commander there told Pentagon reporters today.
Army Gen. Walter “Skip” Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, called the initiatives important to readiness in a theater he said remains critically important to the United States.
Sharp, who also commands United Nations Command Korea and Combined Forces Command, said he set three priorities since assuming his post in June. He vowed to strengthen the U.S.- South Korean alliance, ensure its ability to overcome North Korean aggression should it occur, and to improve the quality of life for U.S. troops and civilian employees serving in South Korea, as well as their families.
Sharp called normalizing tours a big step toward fulfilling these priorities, improving servicemembers’ quality of life as it promotes continuity within the command. But he said he’s making the transition in steps -- not bounds -- to ensure it goes smoothly and doesn’t leave military families without the infrastructure to support them.
“I’m very excited about this initiative, but we’ve got to do it right,” Sharp said. “I’m not going to have a whole bunch of families come over and not be able to properly take care of them. So we’re doing this in several phases.”
About 1,800 command-sponsored families are now in South Korea, but another 2,100 families there are not command-sponsored. Sharp said the first step in his plan is to offer command sponsorship to families that don’t already have it, most of them in the 2nd Infantry Division area north of Seoul.
As part of that plan, Sharp said, he wants to take places like Seoul and Osan that currently have two-year command sponsorships and extend those tours to three years. For areas with lesser facilities and services, he said, he plans to change 12-month tours to two years for those who would like it.
“Beyond that, we are working very hard in order to be able to establish housing for families at a much greater rate, especially down at Camp Humphreys and other places,” Sharp said. He noted several initiatives to support this effort: a partnership in which the Koreas build the housing, a plan to provide more schooling for military children and a new hospital the Koreans will build at Camp Humphreys to replace the one at Yongsan Garrison.
Housing and medical facility construction is on track. Sharp said schools are the biggest sticking point, because he doesn’t want to risk bringing families to Korea without ensuring the schools are ready for them. “So we’ve got to figure out a way to do some partnership things, to be able to get some schools built,” he said.
As this effort moves forward, Sharp said, he’s also optimistic about the effort to transfer wartime operational control of South Korean forces to South Korea in 2012.
“What this means is that the Republic of Korea military, under the leadership of a Korean warfighting headquarters, will have operational control of its forces in wartime and will be responsible for the defense of their country, with the U.S. in a supporting role,” he explained.
As this happens, Combined Forces Command will dissolve, to be replaced by two headquarters: the Republic of Korea Joint Forces Command and U.S. Korea Command.
Sharp called the transfer “the next logical step” in the U.S.-South Korean military alliance that he said is essential to maintaining U.S. forces in there for the foreseeable future.
The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise in August tested the construct for the first time and showed it will work, Sharp said.
“We have plenty of work to do between now and 2012, but I am very pleased with the baseline that came out of this exercise,” he said. “The Korean military is a very professional military force, and their military leadership is outstanding. They are and will be ready for this new challenge.”
Ultimately, these initiatives will strengthen the longstanding alliance that has deterred aggression and maintained peace on the peninsula for the past 55 years, he said.
“The Korean-U.S. alliance is one of the most enduring alliances in the world. It remains the cornerstone of peace, security and stability in the key region of Northeast Asia,” Sharp said. “The alliance already has a long history and will only become stronger and more important in the years to come.”