By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 29, 2011 – The relationship between the United States and South Korea has never been stronger, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea said here yesterday.
Army Gen. Walter “Skip” Sharp, who is nearing the end of his term in Seoul, said the alliance is key to providing security in a strategic area of the world area vital to U.S. national interests.
Deterring North Korea remains the main focus of the alliance. North Korea is spending its limited money on military capabilities, he said, specifically on special operations forces, developing nuclear weapons and developing ballistic missile capabilities. North Korean leaders would rather spend money on military capabilities than on their people who are starving to death or are chronically undernourished, he said.
North Korea is the world’s first three-generation communist dynasty. Kim Il-sung was the founding dictator. He passed leadership to his son Kim Jung-il whose son Kim Jung-un is the heir apparent.
The North Korean strategy appears to be on the same path it has been, “specifically to provoke, to demand concessions, get as much as they can, and then to provoke again,” Sharp said.
In 2010, there were two provocations – the Cheonan attack in March and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island in November.
“North Korea tries to influence and coerce several different audiences in order to threaten people, in order to be able to gain concessions, threaten people in order to make a statement that their regime is on the right course,” the general said.
The attacks last year were designed to break down the support for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s policy and strategy of not just giving things to North Korea, but making North Korea first demonstrate some changes before rewarding the regime.
“I think what North Korean leader Kim Jung-il was hoping to do with those two attacks last year was force the South Korean people to say this is too dangerous, we need to change our strategy and just go back to giving things to North Korea,” he said.
It did not work, especially in view of the South Korean fury following the attack on Yeongpyeong Island.
“Every South Korean who had a smart phone watched live as their country was shelled by North Korea,” Sharp said. “That got people of all ages, across all economic backgrounds to say they can’t stand for this anymore -- a strong response needs to happen for any future provocations.”
Overall, the North Korean military is an old style military that is pretty good at small unit tactics, but not much beyond that, the general said.
“But when you consider the size of their military and their location, they don’t have to be that good,” he said. “Their main goal is – if they were to attack – is just to attack south and kill as many [they] can.”
North Korea has a dangerous military, “but if you look at it from the perspective of the alliance, I’m very confident if North Korea were to attack we would be able to – as an alliance – be able to stop them south of Seoul and then eventually be able to complete the destruction of the North Korean military.”
Tour lengths for U.S. service members are increasing in the nation. “If you are a single service member, you come basically for one year and you can elect to stay for two years or three years with some incentive pay that goes with it,” he said. “Eventually, as we move toward full tour normalization is to have it just like Germany or Japan.”
South Korea is marking the 61st anniversary of the battles of the Korean War. Sharp said returning American veterans of the war – many of whom have not been back since the 1950s – cannot believe the changes in Korea since the war. Korea is now the 13th largest economy in the world. Metropolitan Seoul has a population in excess of 25 million.
The general was born in 1952 while his father was deployed with the 40th Infantry Division to Korea. The sacrifices made by that generation and millions of American servicemembers who have been assigned to Korea since then, inspire him to make the alliance between the two countries even closer, he said.
“There is a strong desire within me to strengthen the alliance, and continue to do what we can to get changes in North Korea so eventually this can come to the right end and have a reunified peninsula where people are valued and freedom and education is valued,” he said.