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American Forces Press Service

Unwavering U.S. Commitment Provides Backdrop to Korean Command Change

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

SEOUL, South Korea, June 3, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates hailed newly promoted Army Gen. William “Skip” Sharp as “the right man” to advance the close U.S. alliance with South Korea today, as Sharp took on the top U.S. military post on the Korean peninsula.

Sharp assumed command of United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea from Army Gen. Burwell “B.B.” Bell, who has held the post since February 2006, during ceremonies marked by gun salutes, drum rolls and pageantry.

The ceremony at Yongsan Garrison’s Knight Field followed Gates’ breakfast meeting this morning with South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee to discuss strides in the two countries’ 50-plus-year alliance and changes ahead to ensure it continues fostering peace and prosperity in Asia.

Gates declared the alliance “strong and healthy” and said the Republic of Korea “remains a faithful friend and stalwart partner.”

The South Korean military under Lee’s leadership is “one of the best-trained, best-equipped, best-led military forces in the world,” and is on track to take over wartime command of its troops in 2012 for the first time in nearly six decades, Gates said.

Noting mutual support for the change, Gates assured South Koreans in the audience the change won’t diminish U.S. interest or commitment.

“The planned transition has in no way altered -- nor will it, in the future, alter -- the closeness of our alliance,” he said. “The United States has an unshakeable commitment to the Republic of Korea and our alliance, which has served both our nations and the world so well.”

Gates extended praise to Bell for his leadership here that has left U.S. Forces Korea “ready to fight and prevail in any contest on the peninsula in support of our South Korean ally.”

He cited Bell’s aggressive work to ensure the U.S.-South Korean alliance has remained strong by implementing realignment agreements and overseeing the developing of Camp Humphreys to support hose agreements. Bell’s work to prepare for the transfer of wartime command authority to the South Koreans for their forces has laid an important foundation toward that 2012 goal, he said.

Gates also hailed Bell’s promotion of interaction between U.S. and South Korean citizens through his Good Neighbor Program, which has built closer, longstanding relationships.

Since taking the helm at U.S. Forces Korea, Bell, known as “B.B.” for “Burwell Baxter,” has earned the nickname “Baek Bo-guk,” or “defender of the country,” Gates noted.

“High praise from his hosts,” Gates said, “and an indication of his bedrock belief in Korean-American partnership.”

Bell’s accomplishments in South Korea top an already-impressive 39-year career, Gates said. He noted that Bell has made his mark at the U.S. Army Armor Center at Fort Knox, Ky., leading U.S. Army Europe as the U.S. posture there was being overhauled and while preparing for NATO deployments to Afghanistan.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Gates in saluting the South Korean forces that have continued to grow in capability and capacity during Bell’s command here.

Alongside their U.S. counterparts, they have worked tirelessly and adapted to change to remain “strong, ready and relevant,” Mullen said. “I salute their hard work, their success and their commitment.”

Common security interests forged “an inseparable strategic partnership” with impact not just on the peninsula, but regionally and globally as well, he said.

Mullen called the change of command here “a day of transition” for the alliance as it looks to the future. “By working together, we will lift the U.S.-Korean relationship to new heights,” he said.

As Sharp takes command, Gates said he’s confident he’ll take progress being made here to the next level. He called Sharp “the right man to maintain this important alliance and continue to transform it so that it is even stronger in the 21st century.”

Gates cited Sharp’s previous duty in Korea and his time directing the Joint Staff as critical experience he will bring to the job. He called Sharp “a proven organizer and leader” who will work hand in hand with the Koreans.

Together, Gates said, they will work to “preserve and strengthen this bulwark of freedom that has deterred armed aggression against the Republic of Korea.”

Bell called the time he and his wife, Katie, have spent in South Korea “the most remarkable experience of our military career” and called on the audience to give a standing ovation to the men and women serving here in uniform. “I thank you for your selfless service,” he said, reaffirming hopes to extend deployments here to three-year, accompanied tours.

He expressed confidence in the deterrence U.S. servicemembers assigned in South Korea provide. “I’m very confident when I say that, should deterrence fail and should North Korea attack the south, we allied forces will defeat them quickly and decisively,” he said.

Unlike during the Korean War, when the world was unprepared for aggression from the north, it will never again be caught unprepared, he said. “Never again can leaders allow the Republic of Korea to be unprepared,” he said. “Never again should this country suffer the ravages of an invading force intent on subjugating its people.”

Bell said he looks forward to the day when Korea reaches a peaceful reunification and he and his adopted Korean granddaughter can walk north together across the former Demilitarized Zone. “And I know this will happen, peacefully, within our lifetime,” he said.

Until that day, he said, the U.S.-South Korea relationship will stand firmly as it has for almost 60 years, he said.

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