NATIONAL

USFK role expands as U.S. seeks flexibility

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Feb 6, 2012 - 17:11
  • Updated : Feb 6, 2012 - 19:10

U.S. forces in Korea deployed to U.S.-Japan joint military exercise
for the first time ever



The first-ever deployment of U.S. Forces Korea personnel in a U.S.-Japan joint exercise is fueling opinion that the U.S. military’s plans to increase strategic flexibility of its overseas units are taking effect.

From Jan. 24 until Monday, 150 USFK personnel belonging to the 8th Army took part in the annual U.S.-Japan exercise Yama Sakura in Japan for the first time.

The development has been interpreted by some as being part of U.S. plans for improving strategic flexibility of its military.

Such views are supported by other recent developments, including the establishment of the command post for expeditionary forces in Hawaii last year, and the transferring of some administrative powers regarding the 8th Army from the commander of the USFK to the commander of the U.S. army’s Pacific command in October. 
USS George Washington carrier (Yonhap News)

The developments have fueled speculation here that the 8th Army could become a high-mobility expeditionary force, while Air Force units will come to play a bigger role within the USFK.

Experts say that for South Korea, which continues to rely heavily on the U.S. for security issues, such developments will have mixed results.

“Increasing strategic flexibility is the core of (the U.S.’) military reform. As the size of the U.S. military diminishes, it cannot perform its security role in Korea or anywhere else without increased strategic flexibility,” chief editor of the online military publication Defense 21 Plus Kim Jong-dae said.

“Such developments, however, could be received negatively in Korea as the perception here is that the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of Korea and the United States of America is strictly for security on the peninsula.”

However, the drill has sparked concerns that the U.S. military may be seeking a greater role for the Japan Self-Defense Force with regards to security in Northeast Asia.

“The U.S., Korea and Japan are very important restraint measures in Northeast Asia. The U.S. groups Korea and Japan together as the U.S.’ strategy for the region can’t be realized without close Korea-Japan ties,” Yang Uk, senior research fellow at Korea Defense and Security Forum, said. He added that U.S.’ tendency to group Korea and Japan together will increase as its military is streamlined and as Japan’s ability to send troops abroad increases.

“The U.S. uses Japan as the base for keeping check on China, and Korea is key in this strategy.”

However, the possible U.S. intention to seek increased military participation from Japan within the region could cause resentment from Korea and other concerned nations.

According to Kim, it is inevitable that Korea will find such changes burdensome.

He said that such developments will lead to the region’s structure established after World War II being changed, and that having to cooperate with Japan militarily will be an irksome concept for Korea to accept.

Aside from playing a role in U.S. plans in the region and for keeping China in check, an increased involvement of the USFK in conflicts in other regions could have implications for security on the Korean Peninsula.

“When the U.S. is engaged in war elsewhere in the world, a gap in its combat ability, at least in its outward appearance, appears,” Yang said, citing the deployment of an Apache attack helicopter detachment based in Korea in the U.S.’ war on terror.

“There was nothing to fill that gap, and such occurrences will continue. The Korean military needs to fill such potential gaps.”

The USFK, however, says that the primary aim of sending its personnel to the U.S.-Japan exercise is improving their combat readiness.

“This is not the only international exercise the USFK takes part in, and participation in such drills is aimed at increasing their combat ability within the region,” a USFK official said. He added that members of the USFK have taken part in other exercises including the Cobra Gold multinational drill in Thailand.

Regarding reports that such developments are the first steps in increasing strategic flexibility of the U.S. military, and the 8th Army’s assuming of the role of an expeditionary force, he said that they were premature speculation.

By Choi He-suk  (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)