(ATTN: ADDS more remarks on defense posture, alliance, background info in paras 7-17)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Oct. 17 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Robert Abrams said Thursday that no secret plan exists to transform the U.S.-led United Nations Command (UNC) into an operational command, calling such speculation "fake news."
The U.S. has been trying to strengthen UNC under what is dubbed a "revitalization campaign," spawning suspicions it could be seeking to keep control of military operations on the Korean Peninsula via UNC even after the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean forces from Washington to Seoul.
"There is no secret plan to somehow have UNC become operational headquarters. That is what some people would classify as fake news," Abrams said during the 5th Future Ground Forces Development International Symposium in Seoul.
Stressing UNC's two fundamental missions of enforcing the armistice agreement that halted the 1950-53 Korean War and being the "coordinating headquarters for potential troop contribution by U.N. sending states" in the case of a crisis, Abrams said, the revitalization campaign is to allow the short-staffed UNC to perform those missions.
"There are 21 full-time staff members at UNC. ... Twenty-one people are incapable of performing that very broad and deep task of being coordinating headquarters for potential troop contributions," he said, adding that this is "fundamentally about making a very modest increase in UNC headquarters."
Noting that he prefers to use the expression "bringing it up to standards" rather than "revitalization," the commander also said, "It has zero -- zero to do with the Indo-Pacom (Pacific Command) strategy."
The allies have been pushing for a conditions-based OPCON transfer, which calls for a South Korean general to command the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command with a U.S. general taking supportive roles. They eye 2022, or thereabouts, as its target date.
Asked about the combined defense posture in the face of threats by North Korea, which has carried out a series of missiles firings in recent months, Abrams said the Korea-U.S. defense posture is just as strong as it has ever been.
"One of the big differences between today and the past years is that we are not very public in explaining what we are doing to ensure that we are prepared in every domain every single day," he said. "But I have no doubt in our combined defense posture to deal with any threats. You should sleep well tonight."
North Korea carried out a total of 11 rounds of major weapons tests this year, with the latest one on Oct. 2 when it test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
But the commander said there has been "a noticeable, palpable reduction in tensions along the Demilitarized Zone, the Northern Limit Line and front lines," referring to the land and sea borders between the two Koreas.
"That's good, because it reduces chances for mistake or miscalculation," he said.
The commander also stressed that the South Korea-U.S. alliance is "earthquake-proof" and "unbreakable."
"Some people say there might be some strain in the relationship ... But I promise you that whatever might be going on now, they pale in comparison to what our relationship and our alliances experienced over the last 69 years," Abrams said.
"Whenever we do have them, on the back end of them, we always come out stronger, more reliant, closer, tighter in our combined defense posture and in our alliance," he added.
Speculation has persisted of a possible rift in relations between Seoul and Washington, following Seoul's decision to end a military information-sharing pact with Japan.
In August, South Korea announced its decision to end the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) after Japan imposed export curbs on South Korea in apparent retaliation against the top South Korean court's ruling on wartime forced labor.
Washington publicly expressed disappointment with the decision, as the pact was seen as a rare platform to promote trilateral security cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo.
Thursday's forum focusing on the Army's role and future direction in multi-dimensional battlefields was hosted by the Army and organized by the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
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