SEOUL — Just 10 days into his new command, the senior U.S. leader in South Korea sat down with Stars and Stripes to discuss what he sees as his top priorities.
Army Gen. Walter Sharp, who took command of U.S. Forces Korea, the Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command from Gen. B.B. Bell during a June 3 ceremony, told Stripes on Friday that he wants to keep the command prepared to fight and win, to strengthen the U.S-South Korean alliance and ensure his community has solid quality of life. He also addressed the North Korean threat, the push to normalize tours on the peninsula and challenges his command faces among other issues.
The following are excerpts from the 30-minute interview:
The North Korean threat is always there and we never know what North Korea is going to do. … That really focuses on readiness and knowing your job … that you’re ready to pack up and go to war tonight. Your families, if they’re here, they’re prepared to (evacuate) out of here as quickly as possible.
On transferring operational control to South Korea:
I believe that’s the right thing to do. The Republic of Korea military is an outstanding military. We’ve got a really good set, I think, of exercises and … planning sessions in order to be able to get to the point by 2012 where the ROKs have developed a supported plan, and we have developed a supporting plan.
I think the most difficult challenge is going to be to be able to take the structures, the organizations that we have now, that have been proven over time … and develop the new structures needed for the ROK side and our side as supporting. So … once we come to April of 2012, we have a seamless move into OPCON transfer. The dance of doing day-to-day business and trying to transform headquarters to increase capabilities to fight the way we fight today, with (Combined Forces Command) in charge, with me in charge, and at the same time helping the ROK develop their capabilities … it’s really a ballet that we’ve got to orchestrate. … The first big test is coming up with Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise in August.
Both (President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates) in their discussions with the ROK president and the Minister of Defense here have said over and over again that we’re going to keep the capabilities that we need on the peninsula and we’re going to continue to improve those capabilities. And I’m confident of that. Headquarters are transforming, the numbers are going to adjust a little bit, but I do not see any significant decrease in the number of troops that are over here. And it’s not just troops, it’s also DOD civilians who are a key part of this war fight also who are over here.
Quality of life:
I believe a huge part of that is what (Gen. Bell) has laid out as far as normalization of getting family members over here in significant numbers … ultimately to the point where each servicemember could bring their family members over here. That will not be an overnight process. We are going to do it right, we’re not going to rush folks over here. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the housing, we’ve got the hospitals, we’ve got the schools, we’ve got all the infrastructure in place. And from a force protection perspective we are very comfortable with their coming over here. While we’re doing that, we’ve also got to continue to remember … our families and servicemembers that we have here right now. … What I’ve asked the commanders … is to tell me (their) priorities. … It’s my job to make sure that I understand and that I prioritize what those are and then I’m able to convince – back in our building, and at (Pacific Command) – here’s what we really need as we move toward OPCON transfer, as we move toward normalization. And to be able to sell that … to Congress.
Curfew and driving:
Gen. Bell warned me that my No. 1 question (will be): Either curfew or ‘Why can’t I have a car.’ He was exactly right … I’ve gotten (input) from both sides: ‘We need to have no curfew, we need to let everybody drive.’ Very big camp of those folks. But there’s also a camp of folks that say, ‘No, we’ve got it about right, right now. Nothing good happens after midnight during the week.’ We-need-to-be-prepared-to-fight-and-win-tonight type of thing, as Gen. Bell would say. And I agree with him. … On the car issue, again, I’ve got to get smarter on all of that and work my way through that … After I have time to talk to some people, I’ll make a decision one way or the other and get that out to folks.
Parting advice from Gen Bell:
Give them a little guidance and they will perform magnificently. There were almost tears coming to his eyes because you could just tell how much he loved and believed in the soldiers that are over here, both ROK and U.S. You take a look at what we are able to train to here, from all services, to be able to go do full-spectrum type of operations; it’s pretty unique in our military right now.
Good Neighbor Program:
It’s hugely important. It’s important from the coalition perspective because we do fight as one team over here so the more we understand the culture, the capabilities, the way that the people of the Republic of Korea live and operate, the better we will be able to fight. … In my mind it’s a commanders program at all levels and I hold my commanders responsible for making sure they have a Good Neighbor Program …We understand that we are guests in this country … I’m not going to tolerate any sorts of actions that would … be bad on our government and what we, the people of the United States, stand for. It’s part of all my priorities.