USFK commander Bell says South Korea may want to halt reduction of U.S. troops

By ASHLEY ROWLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 20, 2008

SEOUL — U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. B.B. Bell said he expects South Korea’s new president to ask for a pause in the reduction of U.S. troops stationed here while the countries study the future of the drawdown.

During congressional testimony March 12 in Washington, Bell said President Lee Myung-bak could make the request as early as April, when Lee is scheduled to meet with President Bush at Camp David.

“If he does ask for that pause, I think it would be prudent for the United States to agree to sit down and discuss the issue and then potentially execute a pause based on those discussions,” he said.

About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, down from 37,000 about four years ago. About 25,000 will remain when the drawdown is completed.

A spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense declined to comment Tuesday, and Lee’s spokesperson did not return calls for comment.

Bell spoke to several congressional committees last week during a trip to the capital. Transcripts of his testimony were made available over the weekend.

Bell told the House Armed Services Committee that Lee and his staff are “absolutely committed” to taking wartime control of forces stationed in South Korea by the April 17, 2012, deadline set by the two countries.

“So, then, the review is not over whether or not to do the transfer, it is just to have some auditing that the timelines are getting met to move to the transfer?" asked Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash.

“That’s correct, congressman,” Bell said.

In another hearing, before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 11, Bell said he was concerned about USFK’s lack of up-armored vehicles and has asked the U.S. Army to provide them soon.

The up-armored vehicles, including the MRAP or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, could arrive in about a year, he said.

“Given the experience that we’ve had in Afghanistan and Iraq and knowing the special operating force capability in North Korea, I want all of my wheel vehicles to be up-armored on the peninsula, and that has not taken place yet,” he said.

Bell told the committee that about 2 percent of USFK’s vehicles are up-armored, which is “not really satisfactory,” but units going to Iraq are rightfully getting them first.

“I’m not complaining at all, because I’m not facing imminent combat,” he said.

He spoke about up-armored vehicles three times during a lengthy question-and-answer session with the committee, which asked about everything from troops’ housing in South Korea to the mental health of troops serving there after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When asked by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., to rate the preparedness of U.S. forces in Korea, Bell said air and ground forces are ready but not as protected as he would like.

“If you walked amongst the 2nd Infantry Division right now, you’d see a very ready division without up-armored vehicles,” he said. “So that piece, given what we’ve seen in Iraq and that vulnerability, does concern me.”

USFK’s public affairs office did not provide answers Tuesday to Stripes’ questions about how many up-armored vehicles will come to South Korea, their costs and when they will arrive.

Stripes reporter Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this story.

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