While the Army understandably has been preoccupied with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army’s top military officer in Korea cautioned that potential threats in Northeast Asia still require continued vigilance.
The Korean Peninsula poses two specific strategic challenges to U.S. interests, said Gen. James D. Thurman, who is now three months into his latest job, as commander of all U.S. and United Nations forces in Korea.
“I, for one, believe it is essential to stay engaged in Northeast Asia,” Thurman said, during an Oct. 12 related special seminar at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington.
“I don’t have to tell you more than once that it is strategically positioned,” Thurman said. “Northeast Asia is the home of some of the world’s largest militaries and economies.”
Nonetheless, Thurman said, the area has been beset with a history of conflict. In its most modern context, stability in the area depends upon continued prosperity of the Republic of Korea, a nation that emerged from a disastrous war more than 60 years ago to become one of the world’s largest and most robust economies and democracies, Thurman said.
Thurman cited two specific challenges that threaten the Republic of Korea – the rise of the People’s Republic of China as an economic and military powerhouse, and the efforts of the Democratic Republic of Korea in the north to build and proliferate weapons of mass destruction.
“The [Republic of] Korea-U.S. alliance provides the U.S. with an important platform for responding to these challenges,” Thurman said.
Recent aggressive acts by North Korea may have been overshadowed in the public’s eye, in context of conflicts in trouble spots, but they are equally important, Thurman said. He cited the unprovoked sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, by a North Korean submarine in March 2010, and the killing of 19 ROK military and civilian personnel by North Korean artillery fire in November 2010 as well.
Further, Thurman said, North Korea announced last year that it had completed plans to build two centrifuges – evidence that the nation intends to develop capability to build and deploy nuclear weapons.
“The current focus remains … on significant counter-provocation response and heightened vigilance,” Thurman said. “Wes, we’ve been in Iraq. Yes, we’ve been in Afghanistan. But today, if something goes bad, we have to defend that peninsula.”
North Korea remains the fourth-largest military in the world, with some 1.2 million service members in uniform, Thurman said.
“Seventy percent of that force is … arranged just across that DMZ [demilitarized zone], Thurman said. “That’s a no-kidding threat. When I hear, ‘Well, let’s lessen the commitment [to Korea], I don’t see it as a military man,’” he said.