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Army brigade in S. Korea getting unit award for tight-lipped mission

SEOUL — An Army brigade will be honored next week for its efforts in response to the 2010 North Korean artillery attack on a border island, an indication the U.S. military was more involved in the incident than originally reported.

The 210th Fires Brigade will receive the Army Superior Unit Award during a ceremony Monday at Camp Casey in South Korea. The award was earned through a variety of criteria, according to 2nd Infantry Division spokesman Joe Scrocca, including the unit’s actions during and following the Nov. 23, 2010, attack on Yeonpyeong Island.

In the 18 months since the attack, U.S. military officials have been tight-lipped about what the 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea did when North Korea launched about 170 shells from its mainland, half of which hit the tiny Yellow Sea island 10 miles away on the South Korea side of the maritime border.

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The attack killed two visiting construction workers and two South Korean marines, injured 18 people, destroyed about 30 of the island’s 500 homes and damaged dozens more.

North Korea later said it was only responding to a provocation from the South which, it said, fired artillery in the direction of the North during an earlier military exercise.

During the attack, the South Korean military returned fire and scrambled jets. But leaders were widely criticized in the Korean media for the seemingly lackluster response to the island attack and to the North’s sinking of the Cheonan warship earlier in the year, which left 46 South Korean sailors dead.

In the aftermath, there was a shake-up in the South Korean military leadership and more manpower and equipment were deployed to the islands.

There was little or no public disclosure of what the U.S. military did to support its longtime ally during after the North Korean attack.

It was not until almost a year later that Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, commander of the 2ID — which has about 10,000 troops based primarily in the northernmost region of South Korea — praised the actions of his charges during the Yeonpyeong Island attack and the sinking of the Cheonan, as he handed over leadership of the division to his successor, Maj. Gen. Edward Cardon.

“The 2nd Infantry Division stood ready alongside our alliance partners and was prepared to ‘fight tonight’ with radars deployed, aviation platforms airborne and launchers at the ready,” he said.

Asked what the 210th Fires Brigade did the day of the Yeonpyeong attack, Scrocca said, “We can say [the unit] quickly established firing capability, uploaded 100 percent of its pre-positioned authorized combat load of multiple launch rocket system ammunition, uploaded missile essential equipment, and deployed counter-fire radars and launchers” to support the South Koreans

Col. Steven Sliwa, who was brigade commander at that time, said of the award, “The brigade’s superb performance during this highly sensitive period was the culmination of more than a year of combined training and preparation between the 210th and its [South Korean] Army partners.

“It was the brigade’s finest moment,” he said.

A book published earlier this year gave additional insight into how the U.S. tried to keep South Korean leaders calm in the weeks following the Yeonpyeong attack.

As South Korea prepared for a December 2010 Yellow Sea exercise similar to the one North Korea claims prompted it to attack Yeonpyeong, the South appeared to be itching for a fight if North Korea did anything in response, wrote Jeffrey Bader — the president’s former senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council — in his book “Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy.”

“The South Koreans were considering retaliation well beyond a local response … a disproportionate response that might have triggered a North Korean artillery barrage in populated areas,” he wrote.

Publicly, Bader wrote, the Obama administration declared its strong support for South Korea, and U.S. forces provided “logistical and intelligence support” for the December exercise; behind the scenes, U.S. officials did everything they could to persuade their South Korean counterparts not to escalate tensions.

rabiroffj@pstripes.osd.mil

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