Saturday, March 07, 2009

U.S. Maintains Commitment to South Korean Security, Commander Says

By Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON - The United States will provide South Korea missile defense against a "very real threat" from North Korea as the South Koreans boost their own ballistic defense capabilities, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea said in a published report.

"The North Korean ballistic missile threat to [South Korea] and its allies is very real," Army Gen. Walter "Skip" Sharp said in a written interview published last week in The Korea Times, a daily, English-language newspaper published in South Korea. "They have 800 increasingly sophisticated missiles and have tested a missile that many think could reach the United States."

Because South Korea doesn't currently have a robust missile defense capability in place, the United States likely will provide it as a "bridging capability" until they do, Sharp said.

"In this regard, both [South Korea] and [the] U.S. would benefit greatly with interoperability and exchange of data between missile defense systems," he said. "We encourage [South Korea] to develop a layered and robust defense that provides protection at all levels."

Sharp's assurances came as Stephen W. Bosworth, the Obama administration's special envoy for North Korea, is slated to visit Seoul this weekend in an effort to restart the stalled Six-Party talks.

Those talks, which include North and South Korea, Russia, China and Japan, are viewed as critically important in light of wide speculation that North Korea may soon test fire a long-range ballistic missile.

Further flaming the situation is North Korea's recent statement that it cannot guarantee the security of civilian aircraft flying through its airspace during the upcoming Key Resolve-Foal Eagle exercises.

A United Nations Command delegation met today with North Korean army officers to help reduce mounting tensions on the peninsula.

Sharp emphasized the longstanding and unwavering U.S. commitment to South Korea, and said it will continue to provide capabilities needed to ensure the republic's defense.

"My top priorities as commander are to ensure we are ready to fight and win should we be called upon to do so in the defense of the Republic of Korea and to strengthen the alliance," he said. "That first priority has been the primary mission of the ... alliance for more than 55 years and will remain our top priority."

Sharp offered assurance that sending F-16 aircraft to Korea as a battalion of Korea-based Apache attack helicopters deploy to Afghanistan won't leave a security vacuum on the Korean peninsula.

"The key consideration for the F-16 deployment to Korea was ensuring there was no gap in capability when the Apaches departed," he said. "The F-16 is a highly capable aircraft that adds additional precision firepower to the ... alliance."

The F-16s can conduct a broad range of missions, including close-air support, precision strike and counter-air defense, he said. "So they add significant capability in several areas," he said.

Sharp said he would not rule out that the Apache battalion could return to South Korea when it's no longer needed to support the war on terror. But "there are no plans for that to take place at this time," he said.

The decision to normalize tours in Korea is a key initiative for strengthening the countries' alliance, Sharp said.

"Bringing our families over here strengthens the alliance in signaling our national commitment to the Republic of Korea," he said. "Tour normalization signals a strong and visible commitment by [the United States] to [South Korea], reaffirming our intention to remain here for the long-term."

Also key, Sharp said, is U.S. Forces Korea's Good Neighbor Program that encourages friendship and engagement between U.S. and South Korean citizens. This program helps forge "lifelong friendships at the family level" that personalize a national-level commitment, he said.

Tour normalization will require support from both countries to be successful, Sharp said. While the initiative is already being implemented, he said it will require additional housing, schools and other support facilities.

A longstanding bilateral cost-sharing agreement signed Jan. 15 will help move these efforts forward while supporting long-range alliance planning and the continuity of operations, he said.

Sharp conceded that numerous variables will affect the timeline for relocating U.S. forces to Pyeongtaek. "But we are making real progress in preparing for the future," he said.