WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2010 - The top U.S. commander in South Korea yesterday expressed confidence that the next in a series of U.S.-South Korean military exercises designed to improve readiness and send a deterrent message to North Korea will proceed soon.
Army Gen. Walter L. “Skip” Sharp said he expects the next exercise, which was temporarily postponed due to scheduling problems, will be rescheduled in the not-too-distant future.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and South Korean National Defense Minister Kim Tae-young agreed this summer to conduct the “Invincible Spirit” exercise series after North Korea sank the South Korean navy ship Cheonan in March, killing 47 South Korean sailors.
“Over the remainder of this year and into the future, we are going to continue with a series of exercises that looks very directly at how we can strengthen the alliance based on what we see going on in North Korea,” Sharp told a Pentagon Channel reporter yesterday.
So far, two Invincible Spirit exercises have been conducted. The first, in July, focused on naval and air readiness. Earlier this month, the U.S. and South Korean navies wrapped up five days of anti-submarine warfare exercises in the Korean peninsula.
The third exercise, which tentatively had been slated for late October, was to include the USS George Washington aircraft carrier in operations in international waters off the western coast of Korea.
As the United States and South Korea chart the alliance’s way ahead for the next several years through a plan called the “Strategic Alliance 2015,” Sharp said big emphasis is going into making the exercise program more realistic and reflective of the North Korean threat.
Gates and Kim discussed these plans and other aspects of the far-ranging Strategic Alliance 2015 agreement earlier this month during the 42nd annual Security Consultative Meeting here.
“All countries of the region are concerned with what is going on in North Korea,” Sharp said, citing ballistic missile shoots, nuclear tests and other threatening acts such as the Cheonan sinking.
The United States and South Korea are “constantly watching what North Korea is doing,” Sharp said.
Meanwhile, the general said it’s not too late for North Korea to make amends.
“As we go into the future, North Korea has an opportunity here to be able to change their ways and to become much more responsible -- to denuclearize, to [address] human rights within the country and to stop the provocations that they have been doing,” he said.
Sharp said North Korea also has the opportunity to officially apologize for sinking the Cheonan -- an act it continues to deny.
In response to a North Korean apology, the general said, the world community could help impoverished North Korea improve conditions for its people.
“Whether North Korea takes advantage of that opportunity is yet to be seen,” he said. “But I think all the countries of the region are clearly saying, ‘This is the time to do it.’”
Meanwhile, Sharp said the Strategic Alliance 2015 plan will be instrumental in taking the U.S.-South Korea alliance to the next level in preparation for 2015, when South Korea is to assume wartime operational control of its forces. The timeline was delayed from 2012, at South Korea’s request.
While posturing both countries’ militaries for operational control, or “opcon,” transfer in five years and bolstering their existing exercise program, the plan also covers a broad range of other initiatives, including developing new war plans, reviewing military organizational structures and timing the movement of U.S. forces south of Seoul.
Strategic Alliance 2015 will allow these initiatives to proceed in a synchronized way that will further strengthen an already-robust alliance, Sharp said.
“The Republic of Korea military is very, very strong and very capable and has great leaders,” he said. “But this move to do ‘opcon’ transfer in 2015 will allow us, not only to continue to work to strengthen militarily the Republic of Korea and U.S. [forces], but also to be able to strengthen our posture and organizations and units we have.”
When the transition takes place in 2015, “we will be even stronger than what we would have been if we had changed it in 2012,” Sharp said.