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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.
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)

SEOUL – The outgoing U.S. military commander in South Korea said Wednesday the U.S. did a good job of remaining calm and confident during a period of intense rhetoric from North Korea earlier this year, despite his fears the situation would escalate and become “very combustible and cause us some major security issues.”

“As I look back on how we managed that, I think we did that about as well as could be done, primarily because I did not want to see people get excited and be fearful of day-to-day living,” Gen. James Thurman told reporters in Seoul, a day before he relinquishes the post of U.S. Forces Korea commander to Gen. Curtis “Mike” Scaparrotti.

North Korea threatened to attack South Korea and U.S. territory this spring following its third nuclear test and successful launch of a long-range rocket. While no attacks were launched, the threats raised tensions on the peninsula and led Seoul to push for a delay in the transfer of wartime control of joint forces to South Korea. That transfer is now set for December 2015, though the issue is expected to be a key topic of discussion during high-level security talks between the U.S. and South Korea on Wednesday.

Thurman, who is retiring, said it was important during the period of heightened threats from the Pyongyang to assure the South Korean public that “things will be fine.”

Thurman said he is confident that a U.S.-South Korean counter-provocation plan, developed following the North’s 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, would prevent the rapid escalation of a crisis with the North in the future.

“Our No. 1 goal here is obviously to protect the Korean people,” he said.

One of the most significant events in Thurman’s tenure was the sudden death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011. Thurman said he was initially optimistic that North Korea would behave differently under son Kim Jong Un’s leadership because he had been educated in Switzerland and might have a more western perspective. However, the quick collapse of a February 2012 agreement in which North Korea agreed to a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, along with its failed April 2012 missile launch, reversed his optimism.

“I think we’ve got to keep a close watch on him every day,” Thurman said. “It’s clear to me that he’s in charge up there.”

Adm. Samuel Locklear, Pacific Command head, appeared with Thurman at the press conference and said the U.S. has been “disappointed” in Kim Jong Un.

“As we look forward, I continue to believe that there is danger on this peninsula,” he said.

rowland.ashley@stripes.com

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