U.S. prepares to hand over power in S. Korea


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Seoul, South Korea has risen from the rubble of war to become a wealthy, sprawling city of 10 million people. That resurrection is a marvel to some of the young Bay Area soldiers stationed there.

"This is still a rapidly developing nation, a developing economy; culturally and socially, Korea is moving at a very rapid pace," Antioch native Maj. Lucas Hightower said.

South Korea is home to the world's 13th largest economy, with companies like Hyundai and Samsung, but it is worth noting that every building in the bustling city is within artillery range of the North Korean army.

South Korea spends nearly $30 billion a year on its military. Still, tens of thousands of Americans serve in the country 56 years after the end of the Korean War. The goal has not changed in half a century -- protect the South from another invasion from the North, but the way they go about it is about to change in a big way.

"Instead of an American leading the war fight, it'll be a Korean leading the war fight," /*Lt. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr.*/ said.

Fil, a Portola Valley native, says the defense of South Korea has always been led by an American general. Now U.S. forces are training to take on a supporting role.

"Two major exercises a year; one to be ready to fight under our current structure "ready to fight tonight," one to fight as we will in 2012 when we turn over operational control to the Koreans," he said.

The change will have the biggest impact on the American general in charge of United Nation's troops, which include Koreans and Americans.

Currently Army Gen. Walter Sharp is the man in charge. In an exclusive interview with ABC7, he said the South is economically and politically mature and stable and that is why it makes sense for them to take the lead in defending their country.

"The commander here and the command team here doesn't just focus on being prepared to fight from this hill to that hill and this artillery here, but it's also working very closely with all elements of the U.S. and Korean governments in order to be able to make sure we're on one sheet of music sending one message to the North Koreans," Sharp said.

That message is more important than ever now that North Korea has successfully tested nuclear weapons as well as missiles that leader Kim Jong Il could use to threaten his neighbors.

"We really hope he takes advantage of the opportunity he has now which is to change his ways, give up his nuclear weapons and I'm absolutely convinced if he were to do that the outpouring from the rest of the world to help North Korea and the people of North Korea would be there," Sharp said.

North Korea continues to send mixed signals about whether its prepared to talk about limiting its nuclear weapons program.

It also continues to spend huge sums on its 1 million man army, while struggling to feed its population.

Those are the factors that will keep South Korean and U.S. troops on guard for the foreseeable future.

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

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