By C. Todd Lopez
SEOUL (June 29, 2008) -- For more than half a century now, since the cessation of fighting between North and South Korea, American Soldiers have taken the lead role in the stand-off between South Korea and its communist neighbors to the north.
Today, it is an American four-star general who heads both the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces, Korea, which are responsible for maintaining a defensive posture. He is ultimately responsible for the defense of the country, and has operational control over both U.S. military members there and members of the Korean military most closely involved with defending the nation against invasion from the north.in Korea
But the U.S. military is transforming its role in Korea, and those changes will especially affect the nearly 20,000 Soldiers stationed there, said Lt. Gen. Joseph Fil, 8th Army commander and chief of staff of USFK.
"It's a transformation at many levels," he said. "But first of all, it is a transformation in the command and control."
As part of the transformation, the Army will relinquish to the Republic of Korea army its leadership role in the demilitarized zone in the north.
Most importantly, the responsibility for the defense of Korea will be passed to its largest stakeholders - the South Koreans. That transfer of operational control is currently expected to take place in April 2012. In place of the combined forces command, the Koreans will stand up their own headquarters, under the ROK's joint chiefs of staff.
The United States will, in turn, stand up a Korea Command in the country to provide support.
"The Koreans will be autonomous and will be supported by our forces, not combined with them" said Fil.
Right now, the Army is working with the Korean army to help it prepare for the change of responsibility, now just four years away. Combined U.S.-ROK military exercises will test the strength and preparedness of the ROK army. The results of those exercises will be studied, to learn where the Koreans have excelled, and where they can do better, Fil said.
"We have had a whole series of exercises to help us and them prepare for this," Fil said. "We will see some things we like and things we don't like. And through the after-action review process, we will make changes."
Fil said the Koreans are looking forward to the change and have long been excited about taking the reins from the United States.
"They have embraced it and they want it," he said. "For 55 years now, we've actually had a combined force where Americans were commanding the Korean forces. They will be commanding themselves now."
The U.S. military won't leave Korea, however. Instead, it will change its footprint in the tiny country. By 2012, much of the 2nd Inf. Div., now tasked as the first line of defense against a North Korean invasion, will move from installations like Camp Casey and Camp Red Cloud to U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, about 40 miles south of Seoul.
Additionally, the United States will likely return much, if not all, of U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan - in the heart of Seoul - to the Korean government.
At USAG Humphreys, construction is already underway for the move. In addition to housing operational facilities that will enable the Army to support Koreans in their defense, USAG Humphreys will also include facilities to support military families. There are new schools, childcare centers, gymnasiums, playgrounds, dining facilities and family housing.
The new infrastructure is being put in place because the Army plans on changing two things about a Soldier's assignment to Korea.
First, tour lengths will be "normalized," as they are in other locations. Instead of one year, they will be three years. Second, instead of telling Soldiers they must leave their families back in the States, they will be allowed to bring them along, Fil said.
"This is a hard-work tour, but it's not a hardship tour. It's a great place to be assigned. We seek to make this be the dream assignment for Soldiers," he said.