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American Forces Press Service

U.S. Korea Commander Details Conditions on Peninsula

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 23, 2012 – Nowhere in the world is the disparity between freedom and oppression more apparent than on the Korean peninsula, the commander of U.S. and United Nations forces in Korea said here yesterday.

Army Gen. James D. Thurman told the audience at an Association of the U.S. Army luncheon that American forces in South Korea have helped to guarantee the security needed to produce one of the world’s richest countries.

The prosperity of South Korea is contrasted by North Korea -- “one of the world’s poorest, most closed, most oppressive, and most militarized countries,” Thurman said.

About 28,500 U.S. service members are based in South Korea now, and U.S. personnel have helped to guarantee security in the south since the end of the Korean War in 1953. That war, which began when North Korea launched an attack into the south in June 1950, devastated the peninsula and killed millions, including 33,686 Americans.

Since the war, North Korea has remained a communist state in the grips of hard liners who have sunk billions into their military while their people literally starved to death.

By contrast, South Korea began an incredible renaissance. “The Republic of Korea is now a modern, free, and prosperous society,” Thurman said. “Its over 50 million people live in a free and open democracy.”

More than 80 percent of South Korea’s residents are wired into the net, and it is the 13th largest economy in the world. “The average per capita income is over $31,000,” the general said. “[South Korea] is our seventh-largest trading partner, and is home to companies that are familiar to all -- Hyundai, Kia, Samsung and LG, to name a few.”

The South Korean military has risen as well, and Thurman said it is well led, well trained and well equipped. With more than 600,000 personnel under arms, the South Korean military continues to modernize to retain a qualitative edge over North Korean capabilities. South Korea is investing in interoperable command and control systems, ballistic missile defense capabilities such as Patriot and Aegis, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

“They are a very capable force. The [South Korean] Joint Chiefs of Staff are on track to assume responsibility for the wartime defense of Korea in December 2015,” Thurman said.

The South Korean military faces a formidable and unpredictable foe in the North. North Korea maintains the fourth-largest military in the world, and possesses significant conventional and asymmetric capabilities, Thurman said.

With more than 1 million personnel, the North Korean army has more than 13,000 artillery systems, more than 4,000 tanks and more than 2,000 armored personnel carriers. North Korea’s air force has more than 1,700 aircraft, and its navy has more than 800 surface combatants. “And more than 70 percent of this combat power is positioned within 90 miles of the Demilitarized Zone,” Thurman said.

North Korea continues to improve its long-range artillery forces, which could hit the South Korean capital of Seoul. “An attack by these forces on any scale could cause significant damage to the greater Seoul metropolitan area,” the general said.

Yet, he added, North Korea’s significant asymmetric capabilities worry him more.

“North Korea possesses the world’s largest special operations force of over 60,000,” Thurman said. “They possess a significant amount of weapons of mass destruction. They are investing heavily in developing a deliverable nuclear weapon. North Korea continues to invest in ballistic missile improvements to include developing missiles which can threaten the region. Finally, the North Koreans possess a significant cyberwarfare capability, which they continue to improve.”

And this is controlled by a ruler who answers to no one. Kim Jong Un, 29, is the third member of the communist dynasty to rule North Korea. “Initially, it appeared that he would follow the policies of his late father,” the general said. “However, as he is consolidating his power, he is making changes in North Korea. He replaced some of his inner circle -- notably the top military leader.”

There is speculation in the West about what these changes foretell, but the bottom line is no one really knows, Thurman said.

“He is an unpredictable ruler who leads a regime unwilling to operate as part of the global community,” Thurman said of North Korea’s leader. “His actions have increased uncertainty on the peninsula and in the greater Northeast Asia region.”

The Korean peninsula is one area of the world where large-scale tank-on-tank warfare could erupt. U.S. forces in South Korea are being brought up to 100 percent manning and receiving the latest equipment. American forces are doing more and better training with South Korean and other allies. Thurman said his mission remains the same as it was when Army Gen. Matthew Ridgway commanded during the Korean War: to deter and defend.

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