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YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Eliminating the four-star command in South Korea is not part of larger plans to restructure U.S. forces in the Pacific region, the U.S. Forces Korea commander said Thursday night.

Gen. Leon LaPorte made the comments during a wide-ranging, 80-minute discussion broadcast live on several South Korean news Web sites. Officials estimated nearly 1 million “Netizens” in one of the world’s most-wired countries watched at least part of the discussion, which featured LaPorte, three students and a South Korean businessman.

“That is not in the plans,” LaPorte said, concerning speculation the four-star U.S. Forces Korea command would be dismantled.

“As long as our two governments believe there is a threat, the Combined Forces Command will remain and the United Nations Command will remain here as long as the Armistice remains,” LaPorte said, referring to the agreement which stopped the shooting but never officially ended the Korean War.

The discussion panel was the first of its kind for USFK. At the outset, LaPorte acknowledged being nervous because of the new format. Dozens of journalists, U.S. military officials and other observers sat in a back room at the Hartell House on Yongsan Garrison, with a host of cameras beaming the discussion to the Internet.

Questions about relocating U.S. troops in South Korea, the status of forces agreement between the two nations and crimes committed by U.S. servicemembers dominated the discussion.

LaPorte agreed with the $3 billion to $5 billion estimate for relocating all 7,000 U.S. troops out of 14 installations in Seoul, saying previous agreements that South Korea must bear the entire cost should be “negotiated and discussed.”

LaPorte also said the United States has no first-strike plans to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. He defended the SOFA as an agreement between two allies and pointed out that South Korean soldiers now serving in other countries, such as Iraq, have stronger SOFA protections than American troops in South Korea.

At certain points, the panelists appeared frustrated by some of LaPorte’s answers to questions which have been posed dozens of times in recent months.

About 35 minutes into the discussion, moderator Lee Myung-sun said most of the answers were “as predicted” and asked LaPorte if he couldn’t provide “some answers that we have not expected at all.”

“Well, I’m sort of a predictable guy,” LaPorte joked, before going on. “I am giving you honest answers and very candid answers. I’ll do that.”

Some of the most challenging questions came from Lee Yu-ri, a young woman who will begin high school next year. She grilled LaPorte on the fairness of U.S. military courts trying soldiers in on-duty cases; lamented an ongoing court case involving a USFK mortician who dumped formaldehyde into the Han River and the United States’ subsequent refusal to hand him over for a South Korean trial; and pointedly asked what happened to the two soldiers acquitted by a U.S. military court after a 2002 accident which sparked months of sometimes violent protests.

Those questions led LaPorte to reveal some of his personal side. In answer to Lee’s series of questions about the 2002 accident in which two young South Korean schoolgirls were run over and killed by a 2nd Infantry Division armored vehicle, LaPorte talked about a specific piece of paper he keeps on his desk.

On that paper are the names of every American and South Korean soldier or civilian who has died in military-related accidents since LaPorte arrived in South Korea. The paper contains the names of the two schoolgirls, eight U.S. servicemembers, and 39 South Korean soldiers, he said.

“The two militaries exist to protect the freedoms of the Korean people. They can only do that if they’re trained to certain levels,” LaPorte said. “There are some risks. Our responsibility as leaders is to minimize those risks to the civilian population.”

Overall, USFK officials said they were pleased with how the discussion progressed. They’ll spend the next several days answering many of the more than 1,000 questions posted on the Internet sites that broadcast the panel.

As for LaPorte and the other panel members, all expressed a desire to continue the dialogue begun Thursday night.

“I want to thank all the panelists for their candid thoughts. We need more dialogues of this nature,” LaPorte said in closing. “There was not enough time to address all the issues we need to discuss.”

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