Two deadly incidents instigated by North Korea in 2010 — most recently the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23 — have raised military tension on the peninsula to its highest level in many years.

But the provocations, said the commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, haven’t weakened a commitment by the United States to expand base infrastructure so that, perhaps by 2020, all married servicemembers ordered to Korea will be able to bring their families at government expense.

Army Gen. Walter Sharp, who also commands United Nations Command and Combined Forces Command in Korea, explained in a phone interview that “tour normalization” — an effort to expand the number of “command-sponsored” families in South Korea — must level off now at 4,600 families, up from 1,800 when Sharp assumed command in June 2008.

Sharp said he remains “passionate” about expanding command sponsorship so that future assignments to Korea are as accommodating to military families as duty in Germany or Japan.

But base infrastructure will need to grow, particularly the capacity of Department of Defense dependent schools, Sharp said. It could be two years before the number of families here can continue to climb, he added.

Sharp also explained his recent decision to move from a “first-come, first-served” policy on command sponsorship in Korea to a new job-based priority list. The intent, he said, is to improve readiness by ensuring that personnel in leadership billets, or with critical skills, can stay for at least two-year tours by authorizing them to bring along their families.

Most of the 28,500 U.S. servicemembers in Korea still serve 13-month “unaccompanied” tours. About 1,500 families live there without command sponsorship. That means they paid their own travel costs, they can live only off base and their children attend Department of Defense schools on a space-available basis. If no space is available, the children must be home-schooled or enrolled in expensive private schools.

In 2008, Defense Secretary Robert Gates first approved a plan to expand command-sponsorship in Korea. The response from families was more enthusiastic than expected, forcing Sharp to cap the number of command-sponsored families at the existing level of 4,600 last month. He estimates 10,000 married members still serve here without families.

The only reason for this, Sharp said, “is because we haven’t been able to build the infrastructure to accommodate them.”

Having more families in Korea “has made a huge difference,” Sharp said. He listed four improvements, putting operational effectiveness at the top. It “greatly increases our capability,” said Sharp. “I don’t have to train a new soldier, sailor, airman or Marine every year, which is what we’ve been doing [in Korea] really since 1953.”

Second, Sharp said, “it greatly reduces stress on our families. We have enough deployments or unaccompanied tours around the world, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there is absolutely no reason to have it here in Korea,” apart from limits imposed by current infrastructure.

Third, it “sends a huge signal of our commitment to the Republic of Korea,” Sharp said. When the North Koreans and Chinese see U.S. forces building infrastructure and U.S. families staying longer, it underscores how vital South Korea is to the United States. That in turn encourages China to advise the North Koreans “not to do anything stupid,” Sharp said.

Finally, he said, tour normalization will give future U.S. leaders more capable units in South Korea for possible deployment “to somewhere else in the world. Obviously our first commitment is always to the defense of the Republic of Korea. ... But who knows what this part of the world is going to look like in several years.”

Sharp said the recent rise in tensions hasn’t dampened his or Secretary Gates’ enthusiasm for full tour normalization in Korea. In fact, he said, “in some sense” it makes it “even more important to us because [of] the ability to increase capability of our units by keeping folks here longer.’

Evacuation of families remains a major concern, he said. It’s part of the impetus for current plans to relocate and consolidate Army units south of Seoul, primarily at Camp Humphreys. Being closer to a transportation hub will ease the evacuation challenge “significantly,” Sharp said.

“We watch very closely what’s going on in North Korea, obviously. We see nothing happening that is any indication that North Korea is planning on getting ready to go to war,” said Sharp.

Sharp ordered commands throughout South Korea to hold town hall meetings to explain the new command-sponsor policy, which took effect Nov. 30. The old first-come, first-served waiting list for families had grown to 1,000. Sharp conceded that some families near the top were disappointed.

“They perceive their chances of getting command sponsorship getting reduced, when they thought they were pretty close,” he said. “We are working that, individual by individual, and making accommodations as we can. I’m not naive enough to think we will be able to satisfy all of them.”

The intent, however, is improved readiness. As command-sponsored families leave Korea, those newly designated for command sponsorship now will mostly be families of members filling Category 1 and 2 billets. Category 1 personnel fill the top 500 officer and enlisted billets. Category 2 are most other officers plus senior enlisted in unit leadership roles and anyone having critical skills or who needed more intensive training before reporting to Korea, such as pilots and linguists.

Category 3 includes everyone else assigned to Korea. Sharp said the goal is that 10 percent of 4,600 command-sponsored families be chosen from this lowest priority category, using the first-come, first-served method.

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