Bay Area general leads US troops in Korea

November 28, 2008 7:24:59 PM PST
On Friday, tensions were high on the Korean peninsula as the only train running between the north and south made its last run. North Korea is halting almost all cross border traffic and trade on Monday. A top U.S. general from the Bay Area has drawn a tough assignment at the border.

ABC7 first introduced you to General Joseph Fil Jr. two years ago, when he commanded the 30,000 plus troops protecting Baghdad from insurgent attack. The Portola Valley native picked up the third star of a Lt. General and moved to another tough post: commanding the U.S. Army's troops in Korea.

"There certainly are similarities. Both of these regions have strategic importance to the United States and our allies. Both have got a very unpredictable enemy who is actually pretty well skilled. The significant difference is of course we are at an armistice now here in Korea and unlike in Baghdad where we had daily scuffles and fights, and where there was always a very deep concern on my part about the potential loss of our soldiers," said Lt. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr., the 8th U.S. Army Commander.

The threat is different in Korea. Instead of car bombs and insurgent ambushes, North Korea is testing missiles and pursuing -off and on - materials to make nuclear weapons. Fil command's 8th U.S. Army -- which was heavily involved in the back and forth fighting during the Korean War of the early 1950's. After the war, it drew the job of working alongside South Korean troops to deter the north from ever invading again.

"We say, 'We must be ready to fight tonight,' because the north is very unpredictable. Although we have, I think, pretty sophisticated intelligence systems to keep an eye on what they're doing," said Fil.

But, they're doing it with fewer people. In the 60's, the U.S. maintained two army divisions in Korea. Now there is only one, to fight alongside half a million South Korean troops. They face Kim Jong Il and the world's fourth largest military.

"He's got 1.3 million troops in their military. 70 percent of them are right on the other side of the border," said General Fil.

For much of the last 50 years, a trip wire force of U.S. troops stood eyeball to eyeball with them across a thin demilitarized zone, with American soldiers and the capitol of Seoul, well within range of the north's artillery and in numbers too small to stop a determined invasion. University of San Francisco Pacific Rim expert Dr. Patrick Hatcher says it was a political symbol.

"The trip wire was on the DMZ. It reassured Seoul leaders that we were there to bleed with them," said Dr. Hatcher.

South Korean troops now man that dangerous ground. And the U.S. army's primary job is to train with them to make sure that both groups are ready. General Fil is overseeing the movement of U.S. soldiers to a new complex south of Seoul. He's also getting new authority to put his troops into the fight not only in Korea, but in other part of Asia if needed. That means the south will have to pick up more of the cost and the responsibility for protecting itself from invasion, from a North Korea that wavers between wanting good relations with the U.S. and South Korea, and frightening them by pursuing nuclear weapons.

"Having a dictatorship like North Korea with nuclear weapons is a very serious concern -- because it causes instability on the peninsula and in the region," said General Fil.

General Fil and 8th Army are carefully tacking the health of Kim Jong Il. There have been reports in the Asian media that Il may have suffered a stroke and possibly has had brain surgery. North Korea denies that, but if Il should die, Pyongyang's transition plans are unclear and the U.S. fears that could lead to instability and possibly a war that nobody wants.


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