Top commander in S. Korea talks with ABC7

November 12, 2009 7:18:11 PM PST
The Pentagon says the United States is committed to staying in Korea now and for the foreseeable future. But, where American service people live on the peninsula and how they would fight if a war breaks out is undergoing unprecedented change, and people from the Bay Area are playing a key role.

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Four-star Army Gen. Walter Sharp has the biggest job of any American in South Korea. He commands the troops that are supposed to deter war with the North, and fight that war if deterrence fails.

"In wartime I would be in charge of not only all the U.S. forces that are here and that we would send here for the war fight, but I would also be given operational control of all the Korean forces," Sharp said.

That is a huge force of 600,000 South Koreans fighting alongside 28,000 Americans.

In peacetime, the job is equal parts preparation and politics -- keeping the troops trained and assuring the South that America is committed to a strong alliance, as well as sending a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that attacking the South would be one of history's biggest mistakes.

"Cause if he ever did that there's no doubt his regime would end and we would take it to the conclusion of the end state would be the destruction of the North Korean military," Sharp said.

In a rare interview in his Seoul office, Sharp told ABC7 about the unprecedented changes he is presiding over, including the repositioning of American forces.

Currently, troops man numerous small camps dating back to the end of the Korean War 56 years ago. They dot the countryside, in some cases without rhyme or reason. Sharp's headquarters sits on valuable land in the heart of Seoul -- still within artillery range of the North.

But, construction at a small military base 40 miles south of Seoul shows that is about to change.

"Right here, what you see is a military construction project; it consists of six barracks, 302 people per barrack," Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Richard Fontanella said.

Historically, Camp Humphries has been home to the 2nd Infantry Division's helicopters, but over the next few years, the undeveloped land will be built up as the U.S. military leadership makes it its home base

Over the next three years the base will triple in size in the $13 billion project to become home to more than 40,000 soldiers and their families.

Currently, soldiers serve a one year tour and 90 percent do not bring their families.

Sharp says those tours are going to be extended to three years, like most other posts, and families will be encouraged to come. That means better morale and more time to train.

"Instead of having to train a new service member every year, now I've got them for two or three years; the capability of the force here, it's exponential, because now you can get into the details and specifics for how you would fight your war fight here," Sharp said.

"We'll build the schools, build the housing to accommodate them, the hospitals and commissaries and everything else, and it will actually I think increase our readiness," 8th Army Commander Lt. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr. said.

The generals say the readiness part of the equation will not change. But, in important ways, the threat and the response will.

In the final part of the series, ABC7 will look at the way the U.S.is changing how and where it is prepared to fight the war of the future.

BLOG: Read Eric Thomas' blog from his trip to South Korea

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