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U.S.-ROK Military

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Yongsan Garrison, Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ambassador Stevens, National Assembly member Kim Sung-Un.  Thank you, General Fil, for that introduction.  General Paik Sun Yup, thank you for being with us today.  You honor us by your presence.

I want to speak for a few minutes, and then we’ll do some question and answers, and then we’ll leave time at the end for me to have an individual picture with all of you, in front of these flags, and a chance to shake your hands, and thank you for your service, and give you a coin.

To the American servicemen and women with us today, I want to extend my appreciation for your willingness to serve and continue serving.  While our country’s attention is understandably – and rightfully – focused on the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, you should never forget how important your work is to the national security of the United States.  You are the latest in the long line of American warriors who first fought – and then stood watch – on this, one of the few remaining “frontiers of freedom” left over from the last century’s epic struggle.  And I thank you for it.

I am very pleased that this is a combined gathering with personnel from the Republic of Korea’s armed forces.  This event, and this audience, symbolizes the close ties between our two militaries and our two countries – bonds that were first forged in the crucible of blood, heartbreak, and shared sacrifice nearly six decades ago.  It is an alliance that is as strong and necessary as ever, even as it evolves and transforms to suit the new security realities of this uncertain and dangerous new century.  At the outset, I want our Korean allies to know America will continue to stand with you, shoulder-to-shoulder, as a close friend and reliable partner.

Any change in a relationship as deep and long-held as ours, no matter how welcome, inevitably leads to some degree of trepidation and uncertainty – especially as real dangers continue to haunt this peninsula.  So in the next few minutes I’d like to offer some thoughts about the state of the alliance:  where we stand today and where we need it to be headed together in the future together – issues that you, as part of this alliance’s combined cadre of military officers and senior non-commissioned officers, will be working for years to come.

I should start with the Joint Vision Statement set forth by our heads of state earlier this summer.  It recognized that the United States-Republic of Korea Mutual Defense Treaty remains the cornerstone of our security relationship.  But the Joint Vision Statement did not merely reflect on the alliance’s past.  It also envisioned a future in which the Alliance is developing – from a relationship focused on the static defense of territory, to an active strategic partnership here on the peninsula and beyond.

This change is taking form through the transition of wartime operational control to the Republic of Korea – when the ROK Armed Forces will assume its proper lead role in the defense of its national territory.  The ROK military’s tradition to being the supported command in 2012 is the culmination of a series of shifts towards greater responsibility over the past three decades.  These shifts have reflected the evolution of the U.S. role – from protector of a war-torn land to the role of a full partner with one of the world’s most dynamic economies and capable militaries.

Today, the ROK military is well positioned to take the lead in the combined defense of this country.  We enthusiastically support the Defense Reform 2020 agenda, a bold plan of modernization that will produce a more agile, deployable, and effective force.  This future force will be not just more capable of defending the peninsula, but be a contributor to regional and global security as well.  The recent announcement of a new, specialized peacekeeping unit in the ROK military is especially welcome in that respect.

As President Lee said on Armed Forces Day three weeks ago, Korea’s military must “adapt and transform to new environments and new types of threats” – to not only protect the homeland, but also transform into a force that can also “carry out roles commensurate with its growing stature as a global Korea.”

As America’s military has learned from the experience of transforming in the midst of two wars, changing proud and successful institutions is no easy task.  The challenge for the Republic of Korea is that which has vexed America’s defense establishment:  how to achieve the right balance between emphasizing traditional strengths and preparing for emerging missions; between the conventional and irregular; between direct military action and building the capabilities of key allies and partners.  And to do all of these things with limited time, knowledge, and resources. 

As with all of our allies, we encourage the Republic of Korea’s political leaders to make an investment in defense appropriate to Korea’s emerging role as a contributor to global security, and commensurate with the threat you face on the peninsula.

America’s long-term military commitment here recognizes that the peril posed by the North Korean regime remains, and in many ways has become even more lethal and destabilizing.  Despite the hopes and best efforts of U.S. and Republic of Korea leaders, the character and priorities of the North Korean regime have sadly not changed.  Its armed forces can still inflict enormous destruction south of the de-militarized zone, though North Korea’s ability to launch another conventional ground invasion is much degraded from even a decade or so ago.

Today, it is North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and proliferation of nuclear know-how and ballistic missile weapons and parts that have focused our attention – developments that threaten not just the peninsula, but the Pacific Rim and international stability as well.  There should be no mistaking that we do not today, nor will we ever, accept a North Korea with nuclear weapons.  We will work, as an alliance and with other allies and partners for the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.

Towards that end, the United States is committed to providing extended deterrence using the full range of American military might – from the nuclear umbrella to conventional strike and missile defense capabilities.  To be sure, the United States will maintain an enduring and capable military presence on the Korean Peninsula.  Our long-term commitment is signified by our plans to make three year accompanied tours the norm for most U.S. troops in Korea – similar to arrangements we have in Europe.

But this security relationship is not defined solely by how the alliance is organized to uphold these mutual security commitments.  We must restructure the way we are postured, the way we operate, and the way we think.  Your daily cooperation and working relations – the connective tissue of this alliance – will increasingly deal with a number of non-traditional missions and security issues, including:


            ·         Non-proliferation;

            ·         Ballistic missile defense;

            ·         Regional security cooperation, to include cooperation with Japan;

            ·         Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief;

            ·         Global peacekeeping, stability, and reconstruction operations; and

            ·         Other areas yet unforeseen.

The shift in the U.S.-Korea Alliance reflects wider changes underway in Asia’s security architecture.  For most of the Cold War, security and stability in the Pacific Rim were provided by a series of bilateral alliances between the United States and our closest allies – the hub and spokes model, if you will.  Those ties and obligations remain strongly in place.  But what we are seeing more of, and would like to encourage, is more security cooperation among our traditional allies and with other partners in the region.  A recognition that virtually all the most pressing and dangerous security challenges – from piracy to proliferation – will require cooperation among multiple nations of shared interest.

          The Republic of Korea, of course, has deployed and fought alongside the U.S. military in a number of contingencies over the past 50 years – including Vietnam and Iraq.  I see a different dynamic and logic to Korea’s international military role today.  In the past, deployments were considered something that Korea was doing for the United States.  Going forward, Korea’s international military contributions should be seen as what they are – something that is done to benefit your own security and vital national interests.

          The will and the ability of the ROK to act regionally and globally are entirely consistent with your obligation to lead the defense of this peninsula.  The United States and the Republic of Korea are invariably bound by the same mutual interest in peace and stability around the world – bringing new resonance to the words “we go together.”

          I would like to direct my closing comments to our hosts and friends in the Korean military.

          As many of you know, our honored guest, General Paik, some time ago published his memoirs of the Korean War.   In his book he described his first interactions with the American army – including fighting alongside the U.S. 27th Regiment, the “Wolfhounds,” in the war’s early weeks.

          In the battle of Tabu Dong in August 1950, General Paik – then a 29-year-old division commander – personally led an allied counterattack that repelled the invaders from a key ridge. Reflecting on that battle, he later wrote: “I learned in this first combined ROK-U.S. operation that success depended on mutual trust.  If the [North Koreans] kicked us out of the hills, the Americans would be trapped in the valley.  And if the [North Koreans] punched through the Americans, we would be isolated in the hills.  Thus, if the men of each army did not trust the other, neither would have the confidence to fight.”

          We can be hopeful that such carnage and suffering inflicted on this country and her warriors are fading into hallowed memory.  We can also be confident that, nearly sixty years later, the Republic of Korea military is poised to lead the defense of your homeland and protect your nation’s security interests around the world.  And the shared values, mutual trust, and bold leadership that General Paik demonstrated and identified as the key to this friendship will continue and grow stronger.

          I thank you for your time today, and look forward to your questions.

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