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Kim Jong Il provocations will continue, U.S. Forces Korea nominee says

Army Gen. James Thurman, shown here speaking at the 132nd General Conference of the National Guard Association of the United States on Aug. 23, 2010.

JIM GREENHILL/U.S. ARMY

By KEVIN BARON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 28, 2011

WASHINGTON – North Korea’s Kim Jong Il will continue his “cycle of provocations” and will remain the most dangerous threat to North Asia, Army Gen. James Thurman said Tuesday in his confirmation hearing to be the next commanding general of U.S. troops in Korea.

The general also pledged to take up the recent request by key senators to reassess the 15-year-old Pacific realignment plan, which includes consolidating Korean bases.

“I fully expect to make that the number one priority,” said Thurman, who is commanding general of U.S. Forces Command in Fort McPherson, Ga.

Thurman, who is expected to be confirmed easily, faced few questions during a joint hearing before the Senate Armed Service Committee that gave far more attention to the other two witnesses: Lt. Gen. John Allen, the successor to Gen. David Petraeus, and Vice Adm. William McRaven, who led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and will take over U.S. Special Operations Command.

But in written answers to the committee’s advance questions, Thurman identified four “major” challenges for Korea:

-- understand the intent behind Kim Jong Il’s “increasingly escalatory and dangerous” actions.

-- train and be ready to fight a war with North Korea.

-- sustain the alliance with Seoul.

-- transform the alliance to reflect regional changes and “fiscal constraints.”

Thurman told the panel, “I believe Kim Jon Il is an unpredictable leader.” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ranking minority member, said he was concerned that South Korea is unlikely to let another provocation go unanswered, potentially involving the U.S., which is bound by treaty obligations to protect South Korea.

“It’s clear to me that if there’s another provocation, Korea will not turn a cheek,” McCain said. “It is for this reason, especially in light of the heightened state of alert and increased tensions, that we need to take a hard look at our current plans for U.S. force realignment and tour normalization on the Korean peninsula,” he said.

McCain, with Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and former Navy secretary, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., have pressed the Pentagon to rethink the entire plan.

Thurman said he would review plans for “tour normalization,” which for the first time would allow an estimated 12,000 dependents to accompany servicemembers to Korea. The plan would extend tours from one year to two years, if unaccompanied, and three years, if with family. The secretary of defense is expected to submit the plan for the fiscal 2013 budget request.

“I’m well aware of the fiscal constraints we’re under as a nation,” Thurman said.

In the questionnaire, Thurman said Kim Jong Il “carefully weighs the cost and benefit of military action and avoids actions that could escalate to war.” But he called his inexperienced successor, Kim Jong Un, a less predictable threat.

Thurman will become commander of United Nations Command, responsible for maintaining the Armistice Agreement on the peninsula; the bilateral Combined Forces Command of U.S. and South Korean troops; and U.S. Forces Korea, the American presence falling under Pacific Command.

 baronk@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @StripesBaron

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