Not enough Marines for permanent South Korean presence, commander says
SEOUL, South Korea — The commander of the small contingent of Marines based in South Korea says the corps does not have enough forces to permanently expand its presence on the divided peninsula.
Unlike the Army, Navy and Air Force, the Marines do not have operational units stationed in South Korea despite the growing threat from the North. Instead, Marines travel from Japan to the peninsula on a rotational basis to conduct training exercises with their South Korean counterparts.
Maj. Gen. Robert Hedelund, the outgoing commander of U.S. Marine Forces Korea, said he has about 75 Marines on his staff and their main mission is fostering the relationship with South Korean forces and facilitating training exercises.
Marines “come here to train and they come here to fight,” Hedelund told Stars and Stripes. “We’re the forwarding party if you will for operational units coming to the peninsula.”
He said his team includes a handful at Camp Mujuk in the southeastern port city of Pohang as well as liaisons with the other branches.
Hedelund — who will hand the command to Maj. Gen. James Lukeman on June 14 — said the Japan-based III Marine Expeditionary Force has only about 25,000 forces compared with I MEF with 45,000 and II MEF with about 41,000.
“If we took a chunk of III MEF and put them here permanently then we know they wouldn’t be able to get off the peninsula to go train elsewhere,” he said Monday in an interview.
“They’d be part of the permanent forces here and they’d live and breathe and eat everything Korea and nothing else. So it’s an economy of force problem,” he added, noting the Marines also need to conduct training missions in the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Thailand.
Hedelund acknowledged North Korea poses the biggest threat in the region as it has stepped up its nuclear weapons program.
“Of all the likely places where Marines are going to fight — certainly Korea is at the top of the list and it’s where we spend a lot of our time,” he said. “Right now the current Marine Corps policy is ‘we’ll do rotational forces on the peninsula.’”
U.S. Marines travel to the peninsula for 15-20 joint drills known as Korea Marine Exercise Programs, or KMEPs, each year.
Hedelund, who is going to command the II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, said his successor will take over as the South Korean marines have formed a 3,000-member quick response force to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies. They also are developing their own aviation capabilities.
“They want to develop their marine corps toward this task force concept that they have a ready-to-fight kind of crisis reaction force that they would have permanently established. And they have begun that effort,” he said.
The Yonhap news agency reported last year that the unit, dubbed Spartan 3000, had the main purpose of destroying “key military facilities” in North Korea but also has been trained to tackle natural disasters.
Hedelund said he didn’t know if that was one of its missions.