Incoming US commander must juggle troop movement, North Korea threat
SEOUL — U.S. Forces Korea’s new commander is facing the daunting task of relocating most troops on the peninsula while still guarding the world’s most dangerous border, all against the bigger backdrop of the U.S. military’s Pacific pivot.
Gen. Curtis “Mike” Scaparrotti, who assumes command Wednesday, will oversee a force of 28,500 that serves as a deterrent to North Korea, a reclusive communist country that has conducted a series of provocations in recent years in defiance of the international community. Experts say it could be planning its fourth nuclear test.
USFK is shifting most of its troops to regional hubs by 2016, dependent on completion of the large expansion of Camp Humphreys.
Scaparrotti, who most recently served as director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon and was the No. 2 U.S. commander in Afghanistan in July 2011-June 2012, replaces retiring Gen. James Thurman, who has held USFK’s top position since July 2011.
One key issue to be resolved is wartime operational control of U.S. and South Korean troops. Under the current agreement, the U.S. commander would have OPCON responsibility, with a transfer to South Korean military leaders scheduled to take place in December 2015. A possible delay is expected to be a central topic during this week’s Security Consultative Meeting here. Seoul has asked the U.S. to consider a delay, citing concerns about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Scaparroti said in July that while the South has a variety of benchmarks to meet before the OPCON transfer takes place, it is “a good plan … and I think we should move forward with it.”
North remains threat
Five months after Thurman came to Korea, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died, and his son, Kim Jong Un, took over.
Despite hopes that the new leader would bring about change, North Korea has continued down the path that led to isolationism.
Pyongyang launched a three-stage rocket last December and carried out its third nuclear test in February. Threats of war followed.
Eventually, the North closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the lone symbol of cooperation between the two Koreas. While the rhetoric has eased and North allowed South Korean workers last month to re-enter Kaesong, it also canceled family reunions between elderly North and South Koreans who have not seen each other since the Korean War.
The younger Kim and his intentions remain an enigma to analysts, who say he is still developing his leadership style but appears to be firmly in control of the country.
“In all probability, I would say Kim Jong Un is here to stay at least for the next few years,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University, told a conference last week. However, he said the regime is unsustainable in the long term due to economic problems.
Other analysts agreed that the regime appears to be stable – at least for now.
Ken Gause of the Center for Naval Analyses said Kim, who is believed to be about 29, is surrounded by a close circle of advisers and “operates in a highly-structured bubble” but remains the ultimate decision-maker in the regime.
While tensions have eased, most experts expect North Korean provocations to continue. The country long has pursued a policy of brinksmanship to wring aid and other concessions from South Korea and its allies.
Being good neighbors
Aside from dealing with North Korea, one of Scaparrotti’s most important — and perhaps most delicate — tasks will be maintaining good relations with a South Korean public that is quick to levy criticism against the military for any misconduct involving U.S. troops.
Early in his tenure, Thurman had to deal with a string of high-profile crimes that led him to reinstate a curfew that remains in effect. Ensuing problems have drawn calls for better oversight of troops and reform of the Status of Forces Agreement between the two countries.
Unlike previous commanders, Thurman has largely avoided the media spotlight except for routine appearances at public functions, mostly relying on occasional messages on USFK’s website. He declined numerous interview requests from Stars and Stripes and had a testy relationship with the South Korean media, which criticized him for being inaccessible.
USFK commanders typically hold the position for two or three years, which means Scaparrotti will likely oversee what the military insists will be the final stretch of the $10.7 billion expansion of Camp Humphreys, USFK’s future flagship installation.
Humphreys is the centerpiece of a move to relocate virtually all U.S. troops to regional hubs south of Seoul, allowing the U.S. to return dozens of bases to South Korean control. Initially scheduled for 2008, the relocation was delayed to 2012 and later to 2016. Both U.S. and South Korean military officials insist the project can be finished on time.