Conditions Change, But U.S.-South Korean Alliance Remains Strong
By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2008 - The U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance has changed as conditions have changed, but it remains as strong as it has ever been, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea and Combined Forces Command said.
In an interview, Army Gen. Burwell B. Bell said the alliance has weathered some tough times, but "We Fight Together" is still the motto that U.S. and South Korean troops live by.
The U.S.-ROK military alliance has strengthened significantly in the last decade, Bell said. "In the two years I've been there, I can measure the improvement in South Korea's military capability," he said. "I am very confident in the American military capability."
This is coupled with what he calls "an erosion" in North Korea's military capacity. The North Korean military cannot launch a serious offensive against South Korea to defeat the alliance, destroy the South Korean democracy or eliminate the United States from South Korea -- objectives the North Koreans once aimed for, the general said.
"I believe they understand they can't do that now," Bell said. "If indeed North Korea attacked South Korea, we are there to deter and defend. We have no offensive motives. If they were (to attack), we would end it decisively and quickly, and we would end it on our terms."
The South Korean military, which the general would command in the event of war, has grown in skill and capabilities, he said. With more than 500,000 soldiers, the South Korean military would shoulder the burden of ground combat. U.S. ground forces would stand with their South Korean allies, but the largest U.S. contributions would come via air and sea power, he added.
The U.S. Air Force and Navy are "extraordinarily capable" in East Asia. Air assets on the peninsula would respond immediately. Aircraft from other areas in the Pacific would be available within hours. Worldwide air assets could be in combat in days, Bell said. "We are able to bring together a very capable air armada to execute a master air attack plan should North Korea chose to attack the South," he said. "And I assure you, that response would be devastating and extremely debilitating for North Korea."
On the seas, the South Korean and U.S. navies would eliminate the North Korean navy and would stop them from using their ports.
"I'm not going to tell you I don't need American ground forces, but on balance, the outcome of a future Korean War, should one transpire, the ground war would be borne on the backs of Korean ground forces, and they would do very well," Bell said. "It's an interdependent fight, leveraging American air and sea power and Korean ground power all put together in a warfighting mechanism that has been honed over 55 years."
Economic improvements in South Korea have changed the alliance, Bell said. When the alliance first came into being, South Korea was a ruined country mourning millions of dead from the Korean War. Today, it is the 11th largest economy in the world.
"Korea is a magnificent first-world country of the highest order with an incredible infrastructure, a modern, superb quality of life, an advanced economy, medical institutions, universities -- everything that symbolizes a first-world country," Bell said.
He said South Korea has been able to grow behind its alliance with the U.S. "In an area fraught with wars and complexities for centuries, a peaceful environment for 55 years is something we all should claim as a success," Bell said. "We certainly should not take it for granted."
Bell said the NATO alliance is a perfect example of alliances changing to remain relevant. No one anticipated the North Atlantic alliance would survive the end of the Soviet Union.
"It is possible that, in the focus that we've had in other areas of the world for the last decade, that we in America might assume some things about Korea and Japan without understanding that an alliance takes management, leadership, consensus and agreement every day between the partners and that alliance has to evolve and change," Bell said.
The evolving situation in Korea -- notably the Six-Party Talks -- has also improved the U.S. ability to talk to North Korea. The talks deal with de-nuclearizing North Korea and involve North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States.
"We have ways of bringing the parties together that we didn't have before," Bell said. "The Six-Party Talks are as much about the other five parties as it is about North Korea in terms of consensus and solidarity and common purpose and taking a common message to North Korea about the way they should behave in that part of the world," the general said. "As long as we have a solid consensus and agreement on how we should approach North Korea, then I think North Korea has fewer options."
While its military capability is eroding, North Korea remains a threat, Bell said. The country is a military dictatorship that has a 1.2 million-man army, 70 percent of which is within 90 miles of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Artillery could reach the South Korean capital, and North Korean missiles could range the peninsula.
"As long as you have a million men under arms right there, with all this artillery capable of shooting at Seoul, and while I am certain that North Korea would not win a war against the alliance, they still could cause enormous destruction if they chose to do it," Bell said.
The U.S. and South Korea are aware of the threat from North Korea, and both countries are prepared. "It takes solid leadership; it takes consensus. It takes political framework, diplomatic engagement and, as is always the case, it takes a security environment, and that's the business I am in," the general said.
Bell said he will retire this summer. The next commander will continue to help manage the alliance, because Korea is a strategic area, he said. "It is right in the middle of an area of vital U.S. interests," he said.