USFK commander sees Humphreys move in 5 to 6 years

SEOUL — The commander of U.S. Forces Korea said Friday that it could be five or six years before U.S. troops move to Camp Humphreys, the future flagship U.S. military installation in South Korea, because of the size and complexity of the massive relocation project.

Gen. Walter Sharp said he could not give an exact date for the move, which had been set by previous USFK generals for 2008 and later for 2012.

“We’re progressing well,” he said during an interview with Stars and Stripes about the Key Resolve exercise that ended Thursday, adding that he was “very satisfied” with the pace of the project.

The bulk of U.S. troops in Seoul and the area north up to the Demilitarized Zone are to move to Camp Humphreys, allowing the U.S. to return many of its bases to South Korea. But the $13 billion expansion of the once-sleepy Army helicopter base — where 17,000 U.S. troops will eventually be stationed — has been slow.

Sharp said he wants the move to happen as quickly as possible, but it’s difficult to coordinate construction, moving troops and their families, “and at the same time never losing our combat capability.”

A South Korean spokesman for the USFK Base Relocation Project Management Group, part of the country’s Ministry of National Defense, said Sharp’s five- to six-year projection was accurate.

The spokesman said the ministry is pushing for the relocation to happen as quickly as possible, and said the delay was mainly caused by U.S. budget shortfalls. He declined to discuss the move further. USFK could not immediately respond to his comments, which came late Friday afternoon.

Sharp has said the move to Humphreys will roughly halve the number of U.S. military installations in South Korea, from about 105 to about 45.

Sharp’s comments came a day after the end of the annual Key Resolve exercise, during which U.S. and South Korean troops rehearsed defending the peninsula from a North Korean attack.

Sharp called the exercise “very successful” in helping prepare South Korea for its April 2012 deadline to be ready to assume military leadership should war break out on the peninsula. A U.S. commander currently holds that responsibility.

Part of the exercise tackled what the two countries would do during and before a North Korean attack, including trying to de-escalate a brewing crisis before it turns into war and how to bring additional troops into theater, Sharp said.

South Korea’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Lee Sang-eui, and his staff participated in the war games around the clock, Sharp said.

“They were in the battle rhythm of us making decisions, of us coordinating with them, of them giving recommendations,” he said. “It was more than them just watching us. It was them participating with us.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this story.