Part of the U.S. Forces Korea needs to remain north of Seoul near the frontline after headquarters relocates south of the capital, USFK commander Curtis Scaparrotti said Monday.
"In terms of the residual in what we call Area I, there may be a need operationally to leave some residual in those areas just for proper defense and response," Scaparrotti told the Defense Ministry press corps. It was his first meeting with the reporters after he was inaugurated as the new USFK commander last month.
The plan so far has been for the entire USFK to retreat to a new base in Pyeongtaek in southwestern Gyeonggi Province by 2016.
But since last year, the USFK has been talking with the South Korean military about leaving the 210th Fires Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division in Dongducheon to promptly respond to threats from North Korean long-range artillery.
This suggests the U.S troops would continue to play a "tripwire" role, a term used to mean that the U.S. will automatically intervene in a war here if American soldiers in the frontline area are attacked by North Korean troops.
There has been concern that if all U.S. forces retreat south, there would be no tripwire and therefore a greater threat of provocations from the North.
Scaparrotti also came out in favor of reorganizing the 2nd U.S. Infantry Division to include some South Korean troops. "There has been no decision, but we discussed it and I think it is a strong possibility and will be a strong additive to our alliance," he said. "It is something that I will look into and talk to the [South Korean] leadership about."
The idea has been under discussion as a way to tighten the Korea-U.S. alliance in preparation for the transfer of full operational control of South Korean troops to Seoul in December 2015 and the subsequent dismantlement of the Combined Forces Command.
The debate has been put on hold as the two countries are talking about a further delay of the handover.
Scaparrotti said a prerequisite for the handover is to secure adequate capabilities to deter North Korea. "The important part of the OPCON transition was the conditions that had to be met," he said, using the military acronym for the handover.
Meanwhile, in a lecture sponsored by the Association of the Republic of Korea Army at the Koreana Hotel, Scaparrotti said Seoul and Washington have kept improving capabilities to respond to missile threats from the North.
He claimed there is no need to worry even though the U.S. military faces budget cuts, and Korea remains "the second-highest priority" after Afghanistan.