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Commander, U.S. Forces Korea, General Curtis Scaparrotti and Rear Admiral John Kirby, Press Secretary

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Good morning, everybody.

Today, we're very proud and very happy to welcome into the briefing room General Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea. You know the general very well.

The general is wrapping up a very big week in Washington. He attended yesterday's security consultative with our South Korean allies, and you were here yesterday, you say what came out of that good productive meeting.

The general's got a few comments for opening statements. And then we'll start taking question. We got about 30 minutes. I'll be moderating, so when I call on you, please identify yourself and who you're with before you ask your question. Thanks.


GENERAL CURTIS SCAPARROTTI: Well, good morning, everyone. I appreciate the opportunity to speak today.

And on behalf of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and the DOD civilians that -- and our families that serve in Korea, thanks for attending the press conference today.

The mission of the United States and Republic of Korea alliance is to deter aggression, and if deterrence fails, defend South Korea. We deter North Korean aggression by ensuring our forces are ready to fight tonight. Therefore, our focus is on readiness and sustaining and strengthening the alliance.

The alliance's success in these areas, coupled with the determined efforts of the United Nations Command Sending States, provides stability on the Korean Peninsula and promotes economic prosperity for the region and the international community.

In North Korea, Kim Jong Un remains in control of an isolated, authoritative regime that's willing to use violence and threats of violence to advance its interests, gain recognition as a nuclear power, and secure the regime's survival.

In recent years, North Korea has focused on development of asymmetric capabilities. These capabilities include several hundred ballistic missiles, one of the world's largest chemical weapons stockpiles, a biological weapons research program, and the world's largest special operations force, as well as an active cyber-warfare capability.

In violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions, North Korea carried out its third nuclear test last year and significantly increased their frequency of no-notice ballistic missile launches this year.

We are concerned that such events could start a cycle of action and counteraction, leading to an unintended, uncontrolled escalation. This underscores the need for the alliance to work together, to be vigilant and to be ready to act.

During this past year, we've worked closely with the South Korean military to develop the alliance's capabilities to address the evolving North Korean threat.

Together, we've enhanced our readiness in the areas of combined and joint command, control, communications, computers and intelligence, an alliance counter missile defense strategy, and the procurement of precision-guided munitions, ballistic missile defense systems, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms.

This coupled with prudent deployment of additive Army and Air Force rotational forces to Korea has enhanced the alliance's readiness posture and reinforced the U.S. commitment to the Republic of Korea.

This week's military committee meeting or the MCM, and the security consultative meeting, or the SCM, have set the conditions for the alliance to transform and improve in the years to come.

We are particularly encouraged by the signing on the memorandum of understanding on wartime operational control, or the OPCON. The bilateral decision to shift to a conditions-based OPCON transition will ensure our combined defense posture remains strong and seamless while the Republic of Korea develops or acquires the critical military capabilities necessary to assume the lead in the combined defense of South Korea.

As a result of this bilateral decision, the combined forces command, or CFC, will retain its wartime leadership role until the alliance agrees conditions are conducive for a stable OPCOM transition. Consequently, the United States and the Republic of Korea agreed to temporarily maintain war-fighting capabilities in Seoul and north of the Han River, which are critical to the defense of the Republic of Korea.

In Seoul, CFC will maintain the necessary presence required to command and control operational forces. Similarly, CFC will keep the U.S. 210th Field Artillery Brigade in area one, which is that northern area, until the alliance partners field a comparable capability.

The United States and the Republic of Korea will continue to execute the vast majority of the U.S. force relocation agreements as planned, and will work together to make some adjustments to support the bilateral assessment of OPCON transition.

Overall, we are confident the results of the MCM and the SCM will provide momentum for the alliance transformation to defend against an evolving and developing North Korean threat.

The decisions made reinforce our nation's commitment to South Korea against the North Korean threat, and enable the alliance to continue to promote deterrents and promote regional stability.

And moving forward, we will continue to work closely with the South Korean military to enhance our quality alliance by integrating capabilities that will improve our combined and joint war fighting readiness.

As an alliance force in battle, the United States and the Republic of Korea were able to overcome differences through trust, respect and friendship. These intangibles make up the very fabric of our alliance.

Our history in deterring war for 60 years is a testament to how important the human dimension of our alliance is and will be for years to come.

Again, I appreciate being here today and I look forward to your questions. Thank you.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: (inaudible) questions?

Q: A couple of questions on capabilities.

Tony Capaccio over at Bloomberg News.

When I was out there last year you were taking over. In your congressional testimony you talked about thee need for north -- excuse me -- South Korea to beef up their upper-tier missile defense.

A year later, what improvements actually have been made? And to what extent are these capability enhancements the leading factor in the turnover? I'm thinking of Apache Longbows not coming in until 2016. They still haven't bought the Global Hawk that they seem to have committed to, but can you review the bidding? Where are these big-ticket items?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: In the larger things, as you know, they have made the commitment by budgeting for the systems, many of which that you've talked about. And so it's going to take a few years for them to bring them on. But the fact that they've committed to that. They've budgeted. In some cases, they've signed the contract. And that's very important to the qualities to the qualities that the alliance need.

And you've said -- I've been on the record that as an alliance we need greater ISR. Their Global Hawk purchase and others will help with that. And in terms of the missile defense, as an alliance, we've done a lot of work in the year that I've been here, in terms of our training, our understanding of how we'll work together as an alliance with the systems that we have today. And then their budgeting and commitment to upgrading, for instance, from PAC-2's to PAC-3's, their commitment to purchasing systems that allow interoperability with our systems, which I think is a very important movement in the establishment of the Korean air-missile defense system, for instance. Their operational control has been stood up and works with our command center. All of those things are pretty critical steps. Others, that take time and money, will take a little longer.

Q: Well, just one follow-up. Last year Global Hawk was approved by question and there was some speculation that the South Koreans would buy them, starting earlier this year. Where is that sale? That seems to be a real leading indicator of ISR improvements.

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Well, Tony, I'd ask go back to the Republic of Korea for those details. But from my point of view it's on track. They are continuing forward with the purchase of Global Hawk. Alright?

Q: Dave Martin, CBS.

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Good to see you.

Q: Kim Jong Un has seems to have toned down his rhetoric, since the early months of coming to power. Has there been any substantive change in North Korean behavior over that time? And what is your assessment of his disappearance?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Well, you know, his rhetoric has toned down some if you go back to, say, December '12, '13 and the time period where we had the third nuclear test, et cetera, and coming into this last year when I took command.

And they have probably reached out more. They sent a representative to the U.N. to speak. They've reached out to other countries. I think that has probably been a bit of a change. But I would tell you, David, right underneath that at the very same time, they've continued apace their development of missile systems, their nuclear systems, other asymmetric means, working very hard at that.

And then secondly, they've picked up what I would term provocative actions in the northwest islands region and also along the DMZ. In the year here that I've been in command, we've had 10 missile events, which are violations of UNSCR. They've been more aggressive along the DMZ and northwest islands region. We've had several brushups there with -- with rounds exchanged.

So, I'd say it's a little bit of both -- rhetoric down a bit, but -- and maybe a little more outreach, but -- but probably a little greater provocation on the other side, too, so simultaneously right beside each other.

In terms of Kim Jung Un, you know, it's very difficult to tell precisely what the health issue was. We believe it was a health issue. We know from photos that -- and what they told us -- that he had some discomfort in walking. And we've seen him with a cane since he came back out.

I would tell you that today as we've looked at what he's doing in the last week or two since he came back out into public view, he's back out checking construction sites, visiting military units, and probably approaching, you know, a schedule that's similar to what he had prior to his 30-some days of disappearance.

Q: Can I follow up on that?


REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead, Courtney.

Q: Courtney Kube with NBC News.

Do you believe that he is still in charge of the country, then, Kim Jong Un?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: I do. I think he's clearly in control of the country.

Q: And then you mentioned the significant increase in missile -- new missile launches. I mean, what exactly is your assessment for why he is doing that? And then can you give any more details about their active cyber warfare program?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Well, first of all on the missile side of this, he has a very clear developmental program for missiles. And as you know, he has a large number of close-range and short-range ballistic missiles, but he's working on medium, intermediate, intercontinental.

Most of those missile events were shorter-range. We believe that he's got to continue to do some of this for just testing and development of these systems. Some of that is done in order to message to us, to the alliance, that he has the capability with mobile ballistic missile systems to move and fire from different areas.

One of the things that we've seen this year is that he has stressed more realistic training in his -- his forces, conventional and his rocket forces. And so we've seen some of the training that has been more realistic and it has resulted in, I believe, some of these -- the more frequent missile launches.

Q: Their active cyber warfare program?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: He does. I would say that in cyber, while it's not as vast as some others internationally that we face, but he clearly is -- is focused on developing cyber capabilities. We've seen where he has had impact, obviously, in South Korea and their business and commercial entities. It's things like disruption of service, et cetera.

But he's clearly developed a capability that in the future is going to go beyond that and provide a capability that -- that, you know, we need to protect ourselves against and be concerned about.

Q: Hi, General. Jon Harper with Stars and Stripes.

How far away is South Korea from developing the necessary command and control capabilities for the OPCON transfer to take place? And also, once the OPCON transfer does take place, what will the command structure be like? Will there still be a unified command structure with a South Korean general in charge? Or will there be a separate U.S. command and a support role of ROK forces?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Yeah, I'll take the second one first. I'm glad you asked it, because there's been various reviews of this in the media in the last, you know, month or two.

Actually, the -- as an alliance, what we've agreed to do is that today we're under a combined command -- combined forces command. And as we go to an OPCON transition, we will remain in a combined command. That's one of the decisions that was made -- not a bilateral command, but a combined one.

And so essentially we will form a future command that is organized in a similar fashion to the combined forces command. But obviously the commander will be a Republic of Korea four-star, and the deputy will be a U.S. four-star, and then throughout the staff we will have both ROK and U.S. officers populating the staff. And as you look at ours today, we have a specific number of staff that the primary is the lead.

For instance, the operations officer in my command is U.S. and the deputy is ROK, and you can foresee a command where he develop a very similar relationship and reverse roles, potentially.

We've got a fair bit of that worked out at this point, and we're still working through it as an alliance in our working groups.

In terms of timing, specifically with respect to critical military capabilities, this is a conditions-based OPCON transition, and we as an alliance decided to do it that way so that we retained our focus on those capabilities and on developing them. And so you know, I'm not as a commander focused on the timing of it necessarily, but we focus every day to try and develop each of those capabilities, obviously as quickly as we can as we move forward. And I personally think as a commander that's the proper focus to take.

Q: And in terms of the command and control, how much progress needs to be made on the South Korean side before the OPCON transfer?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: They -- they're a very modern force and they have great capability, and they also have a country that's wired and has a tremendous capability that can feed their ability to establish the C4-I systems, and they're doing that right now. They're producing a new C4 system, in fact, right now, that's being linked with ours that'll increase their capabilities in a pretty significant way, and also our interoperability. So I think they have the capacity to do this on a reasonable timeline, particularly given their country's capability and where they're at right now with this.


Q: General Scaparrotti, what's your assessment about when they can marry -- the North Koreans -- can marry up three critical components -- a rogue mobile launcher, an intermediate to long-range missile and a miniaturized nuclear warhead? Because that, people say, is the real problem, putting it all together.

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Right, right. They claim they've done that already. They claim they have an intercontinental ballistic missile that's capable. You know, they paraded something at least a couple of times.

Personally I think that they certainly have had the expertise in the past. They've had the right connections, and so I believe have the capability to have miniaturized a device at this point, and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have. We have not seen it tested. And I don't think as a commander we can afford the luxury of believing perhaps they haven't gotten there.

Q: On a rogue mobile launcher, do you think they have a functioning rouge mobile launcher, a long-range functioning missile?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: I think they have a launcher that will carry it at this point.

Q: And very specifically, to make sure I understood, what is your assessment right now? You said they have the capability that, but do they have a functioning, miniaturized nuclear device?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: I don't know that. I don't know that they do. What I'm saying is, is that I think given their technological capabilities, the time that they been working on this, that they probably have the capabilities to put this together. I don't believe that they have. I don't know that they have at this point.

Q: Thank you. Can I just follow up on a related matter. What's your assessment about what it would take to get the other Americans out of North Korea? Is there anything you can tell us about -- your assessment why the last American was out, and what it might take to get the rest of them out?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Yes, no I really can't. That's really not something I deal with as a military commander. I think, obviously, you know, the two citizens that are being held, we hope that the North Koreans will release them soon, as they should. And you know, my thoughts and prayers are with them and their families until they do so.

Q: General, can you -- (inaudible). She's talking about the (inaudible). Is that what referring to also the NK-06 missile?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: No, we call it a KN-08, I think. You know it's our term for that. That's what I'm talking about.

Q: The KN-08.

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Now, let me be clear. I don't know that they have that capability. I'm just saying as a commander, I've got to assume they have the capabilities to put it together. We've not seen it tested at this point. And as you know, for something that that's complex, without it being tested, the probability of it being effective is pretty darn low.

Q: But you think they know how to miniaturize?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: I believe they do. I don't have a -- I'm not saying that I know that by any factual basis, but I believe they probably have the background to do this.

Q: Who gave them that information do you think?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Well, I don't know. I mean, they -- you know, they have proliferation relationships with other countries, Iran and Pakistan in particular.

Q: Phil Ewing with Politico.

I wanted to go back to the point you made about Kim Jong Un retaining control of the North today. You know he had a health issue which is why he was absent from public view for a while there. Was the control of the country ever in question? Or was there any kind of political power struggle that you could tell? Or was it just him dealing with whatever his health issue was and that's why he was gone from public view for that time?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Yeah, I -- you know, with -- with what capacity we have to see North Korea and how they make decisions and their control, you know, we didn't see any discernible change that led us to believe there was any instability or anything during the time that he was gone. What we can understand looked like very normal functioning of their government in the country at the time.

Q: General, (inaudible). You know that North Korea continues to threaten South Korea with, you know, provocative actions to -- near DMZ or -- and (inaudible). As you are commander of Combined Forces Command in South Korea, how do you deal with this provocative action from North Korea? Do you have any idea, you know, future actions?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Well, I think one of the things is that we have, one, a very strong alliance. It's adaptable. That's part of the, you know, this process that led us to the MCM and SCM I think that are very important. Because what we were actually doing is assessing the environment now and in the future, and making the changes we need to make to provide a force that could deter against their provocation and was ready to defend now and in the future. So we have a capability of doing that.

Secondly, our training and figure the exercises that we do several times during the year are very important to this. Because that is how we ensure that we refine our abilities to operate together, to conduct the operations that we would have to have. And it also is very clearly a deterrent to North Korea, because it demonstrates to them our capacity.

Q: (inaudible) U.S. actions to North Korea (inaudible)?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: I'm sorry. I'm not sure of your question.

Q: (inaudible) in North Korea and fired, you know, the DMZ. What was your operation for the, you know, to pay back North Korea?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Well, see, I, first of all, I would look at the provocations from a desire to maintain stability along the DMZ and the NLL [Northern Limit Line], first of all. And so our response has got to be based on, you know, on our -- our requirements to maintain the armistice and to maintain stability in the region.

I think that to this point, you know, it's been handled well. We've had, you know, a number of provocations in the NLL and along the DMZ. And we had been able to be prepared. We've been ready to defend. The ROKs in particular have responded appropriately. And they didn't escalate. And that's really what we want. We don't want an escalation.

And frankly, I'm not sure I believe that North Korea actually wants an escalation either. I think they're being provocative to increase tensions. And they tend to do that at a time like right now because they've -- they've just had some high-level talks. They expect more perhaps here by the end of the month. And it's just a part of their cycle of dialogue and provocation.

Q: Hi. David Pritchard from Asahi.

And I was wondering if you could give us an update on a memo of trilateral understanding between the U.S., Korea and Japan.

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Well, you know, it's -- it is one of our goals that we would increase information sharing between Japan, the U.S. and the Republic of South Korea. So it's been one of our goals. It's something that we've been working on. But it's something that hasn't been effective yet. But in military-to-military talks, it's one of those things that we're working toward.

You know, the -- the greater trilateral coordination with our nations and particularly the information sharing, just increases stability in the northeast Asia region, without a doubt. Very, very effective means of doing that.

Q: Sir, Richard Sisk, Military dot com.

What of the memo of understanding? You're talking about looking to the time when a Korean four-star would be in charge and have an American four-star as his deputy.

Would that mean that the Korean four-star would have control of U.S. forces or do the -- does the U.S. deputy maintain control?

And, also, sir, can you comment on when this transfer might take place? South Korean newspapers are saying you're looking at a time frame now of 2025.

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Well, first of all, I'm not going to speculate on when it might take place. We specifically set out, and, as I said, I was personally focused on that we looked at what are the commitments and the capabilities we need over time, that we focus on working on those, as opposed to fixating on a date. So I'm not gonna go there.

In terms of the future command, again, that one, as well, is sometime in the future. We obviously will continue to operate as a combined force. We'll have forces under operational control of a -- of a ROK general officer at that point.

But as we have operated normally we have U.S. general officers in charge of the U.S. forces as a subcomponent, et cetera. So, we've done this before. And it's not gonna be anything new.

Q: So a U.S. general would always be in charge of U.S. forces?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: He would be, yes. And U.S. officers leading U.S. forces, much the same as we've done in other places around the world.

Q: (inaudible) I wanted to talk to you about the A-10 attack jet. You know the Air Force has proposed to retire that plane. It's -- I believe Korea is the only permanent active duty overseas base for the A-10.

How do you plan to replace the capability it provides? And have the South Koreans expressed interest in perhaps acquiring those aircraft after they're retired?

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Well, first of all, I -- you know, as an infantryman, I love the A-10. It's a -- it provides a very specific role for close air support and does it very well. The pilots are brave. We've seen them operate, you know, in Afghanistan, in the Hindu Kush, et cetera, where it has a lot of capability. So I've got a lot of time for the aircraft.

I would tell you that I also understand the Air Force's position. With the constraints on budget, their need to be able to move forward by letting go of some of their older airframes. And as an infantryman, I also know and have seen, just working in Afghanistan, where we worked without A-10s and had precision fires that provided close support by their other platforms.

So that's my position on it. I understand the Air Force's position that they're in. And, of course, that's their decision to make.

And I'm confident that I'll get the close air support from the Air Force if I don't have an A-10 there.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.

GEN. SCAPARROTTI: All right. Thank you for your time today. I really appreciate you coming out.

I would say that I also appreciate the alliance. It's a strong alliance, an adaptable alliance, and a very unique one, because of our background.

And I personally want to say that I appreciate what our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines every day, their families, in particular, our DOD civilians to, a long way from home. You know, it's a long flight over there and from their families. And on freedom's frontier, in a place where we've got a real and present danger that is right on the DMZ and 30 miles from our capital.

So thank you very much for your time today.