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Outgoing Commander Explains Transformation of U.S.-Korean Alliance

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

SEOUL, South Korea, Feb. 2, 2006 – The Korean peninsula has seen more change since 2000 than in the previous 40 years, the outgoing commander of Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea said here.

"The past four have been extremely dynamic," Army Gen. Leon LaPorte told American Forces Press Service.

LaPorte ends a 38-year Army career during a change-of-command ceremony here tomorrow after serving as the commander here longer than any of his predecessors. Army Gen. B.B. Bell takes over the reins of the command.

The changes in Korea are not limited to the military, LaPorte said, and all the changes influence other aspects of life in the Land of the Morning Calm. Political, economic and social changes on the peninsula have an effect on security challenges and military transformation.

In 2000, the South Korean president journeyed north and met with North Korean leader Kin-jong Il. "That started a series of interactions and engagements that are still going on today," he said.

Critics of the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance say that the pact is deteriorating and unnecessary in light of the realities in northeast Asia. "I think the alliance is re-energizing itself," LaPorte said. "It's transforming not to take care of a threat in 1950; it's transforming to meet the threats of the 21st century."

On the security front, the major change is the growth of capabilities in the South Korean military. "Twenty years ago, the South Korean military didn't have the capabilities they have today," he said. "So it's a natural evolution for the South Koreans to take over missions that have been done by the U.S. military."

The transformation of American forces also influences the South Korean military. The very modern, very well-equipped force lives and trains with its American allies. Interoperability is a term coined on the Korean peninsula in the 1970s. It means the South Koreans and U.S. forces can operate together seamlessly. "There's no alliance in the world that does that," he said. "It's probably the most powerful alliance in the world, because we do have tremendous combat capability."

And the South Korean military is taking on the lion's share of the security responsibility. He said this is a natural outgrowth of the changes in South Korean society as a whole. The country that was destroyed and prostrate in 1953 is now a regional leader in a complex neighborhood that includes Japan, China and Russia.

While the United States and South Korea agree on basic tenets and principles, the two countries do not share the exact same perspective on every issue. "We don't share the exact same perspectives with any country," LaPorte said.

He said the U.S.-Korean Alliance is "morphing" in a positive manner and that shared history and principles help to guide that transformation. On the security side, the United States and South Korea "have complementary militaries and we draw on each other's strengths," he said.

As the alliance moves forward and changes put in place in the last few years come to fruition, more change will follow. "It's natural in a democracy to discuss things like wartime operational command, it's natural to discuss strategic capability, it's natural to discuss environmental issues," LaPorte said. "These are all things that get discussed in the United States. The good news is that the roots of a democratic form of government run deep in the Republic of Korea. People worship the way they want, they gather and they vote; these are all good things."

In the next year, U.S. and South Korean planners will examine the issue of overall operational command in wartime. "We are putting together a task force over the next year that will discuss it and lay it out, look at alternatives, look at capabilities, look at timelines," LaPorte said. "We agreed with the current command (structure) over 25 years ago, and things change." The general said the structure may be totally changed, tinkered with or left as it is, "but both governments have agreed to discuss it."

U.S. Forces Korea also is transforming. The command now has fewer than 30,000 servicemembers assigned in Korea - down from 38,000. The command is putting in place further changes that will capitalize on advanced capabilities.

On the ground, U.S. Forces Korea has closed 30 installations and realigned the force. The command has worked with Korean allies to develop a master plan for U.S. forces on the peninsula and South Korea and the United States have spent billions on dollars on enhancing capabilities.

North Korea is a credible conventional threat to the peninsula, and now poses a credible asymmetric threat as well. More than 20 million South Koreans live within range of North Korean artillery, and millions more are at risk if North Korea has placed nuclear warheads on missiles.

And the North's track record is not stellar, to say the least. "North Korea is not truthful to their word," LaPorte flatly stated. "They have broken every international agreement they have ever signed. They do not take care of their people. (There are) human rights violations, poverty is rampant throughout the country except for the military, the elites and around Pyongyang. It's not a government that has the well-being of its people in mind. We know they deal in illicit activities. We're challenging them."

LaPorte started his military career serving in combat alongside Korea's Tiger and Whitehorse divisions in Vietnam. Now South Korea has the third-largest foreign contingent serving in Iraq. "Just another example of how steadfast the alliance is," the general said.

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