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DoD News Briefing with Gen. Sharp from the Pentagon

Presenters: Commander, U.S. Forces Korea, Gen. Walter Sharp
October 08, 2008
                GEN. SHARP: Well, good morning, everyone. Bryan promised me something here this morning. Since this is the inaugural in this room, he said we would have at least one day of a honeymoon period where there wouldn't be any real tough questions. So I'm counting on that today. (Chuckles.) Just kidding.   
 
                It really is great to be here this morning, and I thank you for this first opportunity to address you since I've taken command of United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea.   
 
                I'd like to start with just a short explanation of what I think the Korean -- why I think the Korean theater remains critically important to the United States and to update you on some of my priorities and initiatives. And then obviously we'll open it to questions.   
 
                First of all, regarding North Korea and the six-party talks, Assistant Secretary Hill and the State Department are working hard, through the six-party talks, to achieve stability in the region. And I am hopeful that their efforts will bear fruit and that North Korea will abide by its agreement that has been made throughout that process. 
 
                Over the course of the last 55 years since the signing of the armistice and the ratification of the Mutual Defense Treaty by the United States and the Republic of Korea, the Korea-U.S. alliance has deterred aggression, maintained peace in the peninsula, and guaranteed security and stability in a vital region, a region that accounts for one-fifth of the world's economic output and 25 percent of all U.S. trade. 
 
                This is no small achievement. Northeast Asia has consistently posed some of the most difficult security challenges for the international community. The U.S. presence in and around the Republic of Korea has ensured that these challenges have not turned into crises that have threatened the region. Northeast Asia is the home of four of the seven largest -- of the seven largest militaries and two of the world's proven nuclear powers and one that has nuclear ambition. 
 
                It is also the hub of economic activity, containing five powerhouse economies. The U.S. has important ties, whether it be economic, historical or political, with nearly every country in this region. 
 
                The presence in Northeast Asia is a long-term investment in the regional stability that has specific objectives. These objectives include preservation of peace and stability, promotion of democracy and free-market economies, engagement with other regional powers, and setting the conditions for the eventual peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. 
 
                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. 
 
                I have established three priorities for the command. The first priority is that the alliance -- that as an alliance we must be prepared to fight and win. The majority of Seoul remains within range of North Korean artillery. They have the fourth-largest military, forward deployed with about 70 percent of their forces within 90 miles of the border, in an offensive posture. This means that these forces are within a hundred miles of Seoul, a city of 23 million people. North Korea possesses 13,000 artillery assets and about 800 short- range -- short- and medium-range ballistic missiles that are capable of targeting -- (audio break) -- United States to defeat any threat, should it become necessary. 
 
                My second priority is that we continue to strengthen the alliance. The alliance will continue to increase in capability, not only in the face of the North Korean threat but for regional peace and stability well -- as well. 
 
                The strength of the alliance will continue to grow because of OPCON transfer that we will conduct with the Republic of 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. 
 
                Combined Forces Command will dissolve and be replaced by two separate but complementary headquarters, the Republic of Korea Joint Forces Command and the U.S. Korea Command, or KORCOM.   
 
                The U.S. will remain committed to the defense of the Republic of Korea. We will continue to provide capabilities needed for the defense of the Republic of Korea and any additional support as required, highlighted by significant naval and air support. 
 
                This transfer of wartime OPCON control to the Republic of Korea is not only the next logical step in the military alliance, but I believe it is essential to the maintenance of the U.S. forces in Korea for the foreseeable future. We have tested this construct for the first time in this last exercise in August, the historic Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise. 
 
                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. 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. 
 
                The dissolution of Combined Forces Command will not end what has been the strongest and most enduring partnership, but instead it will bring it to a new level of maturity and strength. I cannot emphasize enough the U.S. remains committed to the defense of our great ally, the Republic of Korea. This new structure does not change that commitment in any way at all. 
 
                My third and final priority is that we must continue to improve the quality of life for our service members, DOD civilians and their families. I would like Korea to become an assignment of choice for all of our service members and their families. Our goal is to reach the point when the majority of service members can bring their families to Korea and stay there for normal three-year tours.   
 
                This initiative supports all three of my priorities, and I see it as a win-win for everyone. It improves the readiness by keeping our trained forces in place for a much longer period of time, improving continuity, stability and the retention of regional and institutional cultural knowledge. It improves the quality of life for our service members and their families, who no longer have to be separated from each other for extended periods of time. It also strengthens the alliance by encouraging more meaningful interaction between the American and the Korean citizens. Finally, it demonstrates a strong and visible commitment by the United States to the Republic of Korea. In short, it improves our ability to operationally defend Korea, strengthen the alliances and improves the quality of life for our service members and our families. 
 
                I would like to end by saying that it is an exciting time to be in Korea. The alliance already has a long history and will only become stronger and more important in the years to come.   
 
                I really look forward to this next chapter in the alliance. And with that, I will take any questions.   
 
                Bob?   
 
                Q     General, there's been quite a bit of talk and speculation recently about the health of Kim Jong Il. I wonder if you could say what is your latest information about his condition -- 
 
                GEN. SHARP: Yes. 
 
                Q     -- and also his degree of control, and is there any indications of succession work under way?   
 
                GEN. SHARP: Yes. You've read all the reports. We really have nothing new. What we're focused on is what is going on up in North Korea and are we, the ROK-U.S. Alliance, prepared for any contingency, whether it be an all-out war plan that we practice any day or instability in the North. And we are prepared for that.   
 
                And the ROK-U.S. Alliance has worked through many different exercises to make sure that we are prepared for any contingency to be able to handle that as a strong alliance.  
 
                Q     But can you say whether you assume that he's in control and is operating normally, or is he disabled somewhat?   
 
                GEN. SHARP: Well, again, we encourage the six-party talks to continue, and we are looking very closely to make sure that there's nothing out of the ordinary that's happening up north, but we're really focusing on our capability to be able to react.   
 
                Q     As a follow-up -- (off mike) -- 
 
                GEN. SHARP: Yes.   
 
                Q     -- have there been any uncommon movements in the North Korean military recently in connection with Kim Jong Il's health?   
 
                GEN. SHARP: Again, we are prepared for any reaction up north, anything up north, and we have not seen anything out of the normal, although I will say that we are -- we want to make sure that what the -- what he agreed to in the six-party talks he is actually accomplishing. And Secretary Hill is working very hard on that as he works through those negotiations.   
 
                Q     And what's your read on that? I mean, are they following through on the commitments they made and is it -- made noises, taken steps towards restarting their reprocessing program?   
 
                GEN. SHARP: No, they're not following through. And that's why Secretary Hill went back and had more negotiations with them and has continued to try to work that process as hard as possible.   
 
                Q     What do you take as the -- your analysis/read of North Korea, the most likely scenario when Kim Jong Il passes from the scene, whether it be imminent or whether it be down the road? It is, you know, a relatively smooth transition, like happened with his father, or is it instability in the North?   
 
                GEN. SHARP: All I can say is, we're prepared for all contingencies. I can't speculate as to what is going to happen there. You know, we've looked at all the different possible contingencies of what both we and the Republic of Korea would do. We would hope it would be a peaceful transition to a government that is much more open and representative, that is willing to take care of their people.   
 
                That's what we would hope for. But we, as a military, have to be prepared for any contingency, and we're working with that very hard. 
 
                Q     On the OPCON transfer, the conservative party that was in opposition until about a year ago had at the time questioned the wisdom of the timetable thinking it was too early. And now that they're in power, there are people in that government who still have suggested that 2012 is too early. What are you hearing and what is your position on that timeline? 
 
                GEN. SHARP: Well, let me comment not so much on what I'm hearing but what I have seen. In -- during this last exercise in August, as I talked about in my opening statement, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, we -- the U.S. and the Koreans -- stood up the new headquarters that will be in place after OPCON transfer all the way down through the line. And we worked the scenario just as it will be done after OPCON transfer, with the ROK chairman, General Kim, being responsible for making the warfighting decisions. And we -- me as a KORCOM commander in a supporting role providing forces and supporting what he needed in the warfight. It went extremely well.   
 
                Lots of things that we still got to work on, but for the standing up for the first time of a new headquarters by the Koreans, and it went, to be honest, better than I expected, I think, better than both General Kim and I expected. They did a lot of work prior to the exercise to make sure that their headquarters were stood up. So that's point one. It's demonstrated in my mind that they are -- that the headquarters is capable and that over the next three and a half years, we will be more than ready to do that. So that's point one.   
 
                Point two is, we are working very closely with them, with the Koreans to develop what the plan will be after OPCON transfer. It's going to be a bilateral plan that each one of the components have worked through between our U.S. components and their ROK components and my headquarters and General Kim's.   
 
                We are working through the initial drafts of that plan. Our goal is to have that in enough time to exercise it in the next UFG next summer. And then, once we're comfortable and make the final changes on that, then we'll start taking it to both governments to get approved along those lines. So we're working through that. The systems -- we're working hard to be able to make sure the command and control systems are in places and the processes are in places for the new headquarters to go through. And again, I was very encouraged on UFG.   
 
                Then the last point I'll make on it is in the four months I've been there, I've been out to see many different Korean units out there, from the Third ROK Army all the way to down to some of the smaller units, special forces and some of the others. 
 
                I am very impressed with both the capabilities within the units and the leadership within the units. And this military is very professional. They follow what we do as far as doing exercises and then doing lessons learned and then coming up with very specific tasks on how they are going to correct lessons learned.   
 
                It's not the military of many years ago where you would always get the very straight, standard answer, very scripted type of thing. It's not that way now. It is a professional military that is proud of the fact that they are responsible for the defense of their country and are becoming -- to take the leadership of that for a country that's the 13th richest country in the world. It's the right thing to do, they are capable of doing it, and I'm confident they'll be ready by 2012. 
 
                Yes, ma'am? 
 
                Q     Could you comment on, what is the status of the normalization effort? I know the infrastructure has to be built to the south. What are the other steps that -- that have to take place, and when do you foresee that could actually occur? 
 
                GEN. SHARP: Thank you. Look, I'm very excited about this initiative. We've got to do it right. 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.   
 
                First off, the data. We have, right now, about 1,800 command- sponsored families, families that the U.S. military has paid to come over and are there, if you will, officially. We have about 2,100 families that have said, I'm coming over anyway. Even if I'm not command-sponsored, I'm not going to spend another year away from my servicemember, and I'm going to come over. You know, for those families, we do the right thing.   
 
                General Bell set this up. I'm not taking any credit. He really did a great job with this. He said, okay, you're here, it's our moral obligation to take care of you. So we're giving them housing allowance. We're making sure that the housing allowance that we give them is proper and that where they rent off-post, if that's where they live, is a safe place and it's up to our standards, and we're paying them for what they really are getting. So we're not giving someone $1,500 a month to live in a $300 hovel. We're making sure that that is done right.   
 
                They get TRICARE-standard instead of TRICARE-prime and they get cost of living allowance without dependents instead of with dependents. And my first initiative that we're working with Dr. Chu and with the services is to be able to take those non-command sponsored families that are mostly living up in Second Infantry Division area, up north of Seoul, and to be able to offer to them command sponsorship so that they get, again, TRICARE-prime instead of standard, they get COLA with dependents instead of without and they get some assistance to send their kids to international schools if there are -- are available. 
 
                The families have asked for it. Again, we're working through to be able to get the specifics of that. I had the authority to do that at Camp Red Cloud, at Uijongbu, and did that about a week or so ago. We're working with Dr. Chu and the services to be able to make it for the other locations of 2ID to be able to do that.   
 
                So that's kind of step one, if you will, to get that done, and to then be able to take places like Seoul, like Osan, that currently have some command sponsors there that are there for two years, and turn that into a three-year tour -- and again, I think that I can do that fairly quickly -- and to be able to take the places that don't have the great facilities but already have families there that want to stay, and change that to a 24-month tour instead, for those who want to stay, instead of a 12-month tour -- but fully understanding, and the families having to acknowledge, hey, I'm here, I understand the limited services that are available, but I still want to be here because I don't want to be separated from my service member.   
 
                That's step, I guess, one and two. 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. It's a great initiative the Army is working through in order to be able to get housing built by the Koreans that we pay on our post that we then pay housing allowance to. We think there's some real positive -- we think that initiative is actually going to work. 
 
                Then we're working some other initiatives, some other sharing initiatives with schools that we just started to be able to do, because that will be the other hard service that I've got to make sure is in place. Medical, I think I'm in pretty good shape, as we build Humphreys, the new hospital down there that the Koreans are paying for because it's a replacement for our hospital in Yongsan. It's going to be a first-class facility. Combine that with the hospital at Osan, and I think -- which is very close -- I think we've got some good possibility.   
 
                And then we will just continue to grow, my goal is -- and again, the services and the secretary and all are working through the specifics of this -- the goal then is to grow as facilities become available to be able to expand into as many service members as possible. 
 
                Thank you for that. 
 
                Q     Yes, sir. 
 
                Q     General, the 1,800, that's an imposed limit? That's a congressional limit or a command limit? You can't go beyond that at the president time? The 1,800 command sponsored families. 
 
                GEN. SHARP: No, you can go. You know, General Bell had the authority and raised it up even higher than that. Again, I'm working through, and I'm going to increase it somewhat on the margins, to the point where I think that I am comfortable service-wise. While we're in Seoul, I can raise it a little bit higher. 
 
                And we're working through the details of that, because Seoul has got the infrastructure for me to allow people to live in good places offpost, off Yongsan, offbase.   
 
                We've got great medical both in Yongsan and then with memorandum of understanding hospitals offpost. The Korean medical system is very good, both medical and dental, so that we can work through that. A limiting factor right now is schools, on how high that I can raise it. And I'm working with DODEA in order to be able to have some initiatives there as we go through.   
 
                Q     You agree with or you support General Bell's initiative to make this a command-sponsored tour, a three-year tour. What has to happen to make that happen?   
 
                GEN. SHARP: We have to build the facilities. And we have to then meter the folks in as the facilities are being built. And again I'm very optimistic about the housing part of it, as we move down to Pyeongtaek. The medical part; I'm in pretty good shape.   
 
                It's the schools that I'm also trying to work through, in order to be able to make sure that they're built, because we don't want to bring a whole bunch of families in and not have the schools to go to.   
 
                There are some international schools, especially up in the Seoul area. But as we move down to Pyeongtaek, there are not as many that are down in that area. So we've got to figure out a way to do some partnership things, to be able to get some schools built.    
 
                Q     Do you need authorization to do that, from Congress or from the Pentagon?   
 
                (Cross talk.)   
 
                GEN. SHARP: I need, I need, I need some money one way or another. And again we're trying to come up with some innovative ways that we can do some teaming. You know, the ROKs do pay about right now 43 percent of the non-personnel stationing costs that we have in Korea, the burden-sharing agreement which we're working through the renegotiation of that right now.   
 
                The current agreement expires at the end of this year. And the more money that we can get from that burden-sharing agreement, I can put some of that into this initiative. And the more we get, the more I can put it in, the quicker that we can build the facilities, so that we have the capability to move to this in the longer run.   
 
                Yes, sir.   
 
                Q     (Off mike.)   
 
                GEN. SHARP: Right now we have individuals that are in other conflict areas, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. We have about 62 right now that are deployed off into, into other countries.  
 
                We have, as you know, in the past, we have taken a brigade out of Korea, deployed that, and now that brigade is back in the United States.   
 
                I do -- there is no plans right now in order to be able to take other units off the Republic of Korea into deployment, but it is something that we work very closely with the department to be able to make that balance. 
 
                What our president and your president and Korean president has committed to is to be able to maintain about the same capability level that we have now in Korea for the foreseeable future, capability level. So as we look at what we really need in Korea, from a U.S. perspective, in order to be able to support the war fight based upon Korean capabilities, that will adjust over time. I mean, as Korea becomes more capable in certain areas and needs more assets in other areas, we will make those adjustments over time. But again, the goal -- not the goal -- the commitment is to be able to stay at about the same capability level that we have right now for the foreseeable future. 
 
                Yes, sir? 
 
                Q     Do you have any read on the short-range missile test that North Korea conducted yesterday, in terms of -- that you might share with us in terms of their motive or what they seeing or -- 
 
                GEN. SHARP: Again, intel sources, we'd like -- I can't share anything specific, but I will say that we continue to be concerned about the development, the proliferation and the testing of missile systems in North Korea. They have a long history of that and it is a danger for the region and we're concerned about it. 
 
                Yes, sir? 
 
                Q     What about our ability to keep track of what leaves North Korea, in terms of the proliferation concern? 
 
                GEN. SHARP: We watch that very closely. And all of our of our intel agencies and we watch it also. And, you know, the -- let me just leave it at that. We watch it very closely. We are concerned about it. And we take necessary actions and try to -- to try to minimize any of that that's happening. 
 
                Q     Do you feel confident that right now there is not a -- that there is not proliferation happening, that they are not --  
 
                GEN. SHARP: I worry about it every day. So am I confident it's not happening? No. But I think it's one of the concerns that we have with North Korea and will continue to have in the future. So that's why not only we but the entire world who doesn't want to see weapons of mass destruction or missile technology proliferated to other people that could use it against us or other countries, it's all of our obligation, to able to watch that, report it and to stop it. 
 
                Yes, sir. 
 
                Q     How would you estimate whether the North Korean military has already developed nuclear warheads which fit to their missiles? 
 
                GEN. SHARP: Well, they claim they have, and I think we have to agree that -- and we have to acknowledge that, that they claim that they have nuclear-weapons capability, and that is a great concern to us. 
 
                And that is why it's so important to me that we maintain the strength of this ROK-U.S. Alliance and that we're prepared to fight against any contingency up north, because they are a real threat.   
 
                Yes?   
 
                Q     General, a minute ago you mentioned that the intention is to keep about the same U.S. capability in Korea and you underlined the word "capability" a couple of times. Does that mean that in fact the number of troops could go down while maintaining the same capability? Do you foresee that happening?   
 
                GEN. SHARP: I don't foresee that happening. Again, I think capability, troop level -- I mean, when you get into, okay, you know, about the 28,5(00), you know, level -- what does that really translate into? It goes up and down over time. There are headquarters that are changing out that will become more capable in the future as we bring new headquarters in across the board.   
 
                But the bottom line for me and my responsibility as the U.S. commander there is do we have the forces, both number-wise and capability-wise, in order to be able to do what we need to do in a war fight, to be able to initially set up in the defense with the Republic of Korea on the front lines, to bring our air forces in, to be able to conduct the war fight, and then to bring our line forces in, in order to be able to continue to conduct the war fight. And I am confident we do now, and for what I see, the upcoming changes in the different headquarters that we have as we move forward towards OPCON transfer, I'm very comfortable that we do.   
 
                Q     But you don't see room for reductions in numbers, then. Is that right?   
 
                GEN. SHARP: That's correct.   
 
                Q     Okay.   
 
                GEN. SHARP: Yeah. Again, about the same level. But I really would like to try to change the discussion into the capabilities, because there are going to be capability changes that we will make over the next three and a half years and even after OPCON transfer that will strengthen the alliance as we go through.  
 
                I mean, one example is, you know, moving from an 8th Army headquarters, which has been mostly an administrative type of headquarters -- that may be a little bit unfair, but it has not been a warfighting headquarters, so I'll leave it at that -- to a very strong warfighting headquarters that has got the right staff sections in there, got the right types of individuals for a warfighting headquarters, and combining that with forces in Hawaii that can quickly come to be able to augment that on a warfighting basis also. 
 
                So those type of changes we are going to continue, and again, I think that that's good, because it continues to improve our capabilities. 
 
                Yes, sir?   
 
                Q     I wanted to go back to Kim Jong Il. Do you have a better sense now of what the situation is there than you did when this report of his collapse, ailment came to light?   
 
                GEN. SHARP: You mean -- I'm not sure what you mean by "better sense." 
 
                Q     (Off mike) -- have you got a sense of -- are you still in the dark about what -- you know, what happened now, what the repercussions are?  
 
                GEN. SHARP: You know, (inaudible) -- we continue to watch all the intel indicators as to any movement or anything that, that’s going on and have not seen anything out of the ordinary. So, do I have more detail on exactly what happened? You know, theres intel sources that I’m not, that I can’t obviously share there but I am confident based upon what we see going on in the North and all the contingencies that we need to be prepared for we are prepared to react to those, us and the alliance.
 
                Q      Is there the same level of uncertainty today as there was when this event occurred?
 
                GEN. SHARP: If uncertainty means to you what Kim Jung Il would do on a day to day basis, I mean, you never know what he is going to do on a day to day basis that’s why we have to have the capabilities, Korean and U.S. to be prepared for any contingency and we work for that very hard. And I’m still as confident today as I was before this happened that we are prepared for those contingencies. 
 
                Q            In 2012 you will transfer operational control of forces in Korea to the Republic of Korea. What about Peace time control of those forces?
 
                GEN. SHARP: They have peace time control right now.
 
(cross talk)
 
                GEN. SHARP: Yes, right, that changed several years ago. Right now, if we went to war today I would take command and control of the ROK force at the onset of the war. That’s what changes. On 17 April 2012 that will change. Where the Koreans will take, really retain the command of their forces in wartime and we the U.S. will be in a supporting role to that.
 
                Again, were not leaving. Northeast Asia, Korea, is too important to the vital interest of the United States. Korea is a place that has wanted us for many, many years and will continue to want us in the future. It’s the right place to be for stability and security in North East Asia…well past OPCON transfer.
 
                Q             As in a decade ago with the famine we are seeing reports that from defectors and aid groups that work in China that soldiers are going without food. I don’t know how wide spread that is. Does that factor into your calculation of North Korean readiness the fact that food shortages have indeed hit the Army which is considered, general speaking, the favorite element in that society?
 
 
                GEN. SHARP: We watch all those indicators very closely. But the huge army that he has up North that is very very well positioned as far as being very close to the border and ready to be able to without much notice to be able to attack south is my main concern and to have the capabilities to be able to defend against that and then to -- ultimately to be able to completely defeat it.  
 
                And what they have, as far as special operating forces, their missile capabilities, their proximity to the border, is still a very huge capability. I'm absolutely confident that if they came south, we would -- we, the ROK-U.S. Alliance, would be able to defeat them. They would cause huge damage in the Republic of Korea, and -- but I'm confident that we have the capabilities there that will quickly -- and be able to defeat them. 
 
                Any more questions? 
 
                STAFF: Thank you very much. 
 
                GEN. SHARP: Thank you all. 
 
                STAFF: Thank you. 
 
                Q     Thank you, sir.
 
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