SEOUL — U.S. troops could start coming to South Korea on three-year tours with their families in 10 to 15 years, but only if both countries approve the change in tour length when defense officials meet in November, according to former U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. B.B. Bell.

In his last interview with Stars and Stripes just days before his retirement Tuesday, Bell spoke of normalizing tours in South Korea — a goal he’s pushed for in his 2 1/2 years in command — as well as the North Korean threat and illegal on-post gambling.

He said U.S. and South Korean senior defense leaders must make a decision on normalizing tours on the peninsula to bring more families there before construction begins next year on single-soldier barracks at Camp Humphreys. Instead of barracks to house troops who’ve left their families back in the states, Bell thinks USFK should be building family housing.

"Once we begin to spend money on single soldiers’ barracks, then we have made the decision definite that we won’t go to normalization," he said. "This (decision) has to be made before we break ground on these barracks."

The 61-year-old general, who will retire June 9 in a ceremony in the United States, has repeatedly said there’s little threat of combat in South Korea and it’s unnecessary to separate troops from their families. Most troops in South Korea serve one-year unaccompanied tours. The countries agreed to move most of the U.S. troops in South Korea to a Camp Humphreys by 2012 under a massive expansion project.

Bell said USFK has to ask for the tour-length change at the annual Security Consultative Meeting in November between top military and civilian defense leaders of both countries. Bell said he didn’t formally ask to normalize tours when he was general because he was trying to gauge interest in the proposal.

If both countries agree to the change — and Bell said he’s gotten "positive feedback from everybody" — USFK would then have to get congressional funding. He envisions 800 to 1,000 additional military family members moving each year to bases in Daegu, Pyeongtaek, and possibly Osan and Kunsan.

He doesn’t know how much building the infrastructure to support the extra families would cost, but he said it wouldn’t be much and both countries should pay for it.

"I think the funding of it is almost irrelevant," he said. "If you’re interested in the strengthening of and the lasting of this alliance, you can’t make decisions of this nature based on the money."

North Korean threat

Bell said North Korea’s 1 million-strong military is capable of defending the country, but not successfully attacking South Korea and removing the U.S. military from the peninsula.

"It would be suicide to attack South Korea, and result in the destruction of the North Korean army," he said of any attack.

More than 70 percent of North Korea’s army is postured defensively within 90 miles of the Demilitarized Zone. North Korea has a "very good" special operations force, and an air force that is training at rates higher than the United States has seen in the past three years, he said. The army trains extensively in the summer and winter, but breaks to help with planting and harvesting.

Bell, 61, said he believes North and South Korea will reunite peacefully within his lifetime, possibly by the population or the government itself deciding to open the country’s borders to trade. That could lead to more dialogue, then reconciliation and reunification of the two countries.

"There’s a hundred ways when you look around the world, at how regimes have crumbled under their own weight," he said.

He pointed to the fall of dictatorial regimes in East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania as examples.

"I’ve seen so much change in Europe, and in Asia, South America, through so many governments, that I’m not convinced for a second that North Korea is immune to these kinds of opportunities," he said.

On-post gambling

Bell said revenue from on-post slot machines has dropped in recent months after a crackdown on illegal gambling, but the Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs supported by gambling revenue will get money from other "appropriate" sources.

"We’ll get all the money we need," he said.

USFK issued a new gambling regulation April 1 that states servicemembers who illegally use on-base slot machines can be court-martialed and civilians can be reprimanded or banished from base. The nine-page regulation was written after Stars and Stripes wrote a series of stories about illegal gambling in South Korea.

The regulation also says staff at gambling facilities must check the identification cards of every gambler. The U.S. Army and Air Force generated more than $83.6 million in revenue in slot machines in South Korea in 2007.

Bell said he didn’t know how much gambling revenue has dropped, but the fact that it has shows there was probably misconduct. He said the inspector general’s office will periodically check game rooms to make sure the regulation is enforced, even after he leaves.

"Now it’s a matter of enforcement," he said.

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