Bell says alliance, base issues must be resolved
Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-day series in which Stars and Stripes interviewed Army Gen. B.B. Bell on a wide range of issues he faces as the new head of U.S. Forces Korea, the Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command. Part I appeared on April 23.
SEOUL — Gen. BB Bell sat down recently with Stars and Stripes to share his thoughts on challenges over the next few years in South Korea, including burden-sharing and the turnover of U.S. bases.
On the alliance“We’re going to have some issues to be sorted out between our two nations and our two militaries over the next years. Those should not be viewed as fissures in the alliance. Some would like to exploit those differences … I don’t think that’s possible.
“The desire by the [Republic of Korea] to achieve independent command of its forces in wartime could be viewed as an opportunity to gain distance from the United States … when in fact, what it is, is the way militaries actually support each other in the world today.
“It makes sense for modern societies that have the capacity of the Republic of Korea … it’s normal for them to want that capability and so we will support that.
“We’ll have debates about how to organize this effort in the future … The North Koreans will want to exploit it. And they do that routinely. It doesn’t work and it won’t work.”
On burden sharing“They have to be viewed … in a broader context. For example, when the ROK government is sharing the burden of our expense here, and as we transfer missions to them, what additional burdens are they accepting that they must also spend money on that we don’t have to spend money on anymore?
“An example would be, in a narrow sense — military terms — the counter-fire mission. Last year, we transferred the counter-fire mission to silence North Korean guns — should war break out — to the Republic of Korea. What do they have to invest to really be able to do that? You know that’s not just a concept on PowerPoint charts. That takes real war-fighting capability.
“And their defense budget is increasing every year … in real terms, eight, nine percent. One of the largest increases in military budgets in the world is going on here in the Republic of Korea.
“Burrow down into that, and say, ‘Now what’s the percentage of burden sharing?’ You know as a philosophy when you go in we say, ‘You know, 50-50.’ And that’s where it starts. I hope we can achieve 50-50.
“And I’m hopeful and mindful that our Korean ally, which has a lot of capability and gross domestic product — 10th largest in the world by many measures — would feel comfortable contributing large sums of support to ensure that the United States stays present on this peninsula.”
On the base clean-up process“Conducting military operations in the midst of this place … there were certainly some environmental issues with respect to utilization of the land. And whether it’s lead bullets in dirt berms on a range or whether it is the unfortunate spillage of petroleum products in motor parks, there is a certain environmental cost of doing business. And it’s regrettable but it’s been determined over the years as a price that has to be paid to secure the society.
“In our [status of forces agreement], we agreed to do certain things to that land to ensure the immediate threat to life and limb is removed.
“The land that is at issue is viewed as a valuable commodity for the receiving entity.
“In this shared-value issue, where the Republic of Korea gains significant value for this land, the agreement by our two nations in our SOFA has been that we will achieve these requirements and then hand the land over to the Republic of Korea. That process has been stifled for up to 17 months by interest groups that are concerned either about the environment and want to raise issues, or by other groups that are perhaps not friendly to the alliance.
“But I know this: that the United States’ view is that we will be good stewards but we must turn this land over. Now we have negotiated with our Korean hosts … over a year on many of these — and just prior to Gen. (Leon) LaPorte’s departure he laid out a plan that goes beyond the SOFA requirements.
“We’ve informed the Republic of Korea … and we’ve asked for their comment on that in the next month or so.
“We’re going to be good stewards. But we’ve got to get on with life here. And we’ve got to move. We’re paying a good deal of money each month ($400,000) just guarding these vacated installations — some of which have been vacated for up to 17 months. We’ve got to get this over with and solved.”