Top US Commander in S. Korea takes office amid uncertainty about decades-old alliance

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN) - Army Gen. Robert B. Abrams took office as the new commander of US Forces Korea on Thursday, amid diplomatic efforts by Seoul and Washington to build a lasting peace on the divided peninsula.

The new chief of US Forces Korea on Thursday stressed the need for a robust military posture to support diplomatic engagement with North Korea, amid concerns over stalled nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington.

Army Gen. Robert B. Abrams assumed command of US Forces in South Korea, replacing Gen. Vincent Brooks. Abrams also inherited Brooks’ control over the United Nations Command and the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command.

During the change-of-command ceremony at Camp Humphreys, Abrams stressed that his “triple-headed” commands will support diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea while keeping up military preparedness to address potential threats in the region.

“The current conditions on the peninsula are as dynamic as they’ve ever been. As we pursue opportunities, it is our military responsibility to maintain a high-level of readiness and ‘fight tonight’ capability so that we cannot only deter, but defeat external threats if we are called to do so.”

“(The three commands) are critically important for our shared interests in the defense of the Korean Peninsula and the security of the region. ... All three are bound by the deep, enduring relationships, commitment to each other, which is critical to the success of their missions.”

Since the first US-North Korea summit in June in Singapore, South Korea and the US have made concessions on their readiness posture by suspending a series of major joint drills to improve the prospect of nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

However, there has been no breakthrough in the denuclearization talks. The change-of-command ceremony coincided with the postponement of a meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a senior North Korean envoy in New York scheduled for Thursday.

In a possible sign of a shift in Washington’s position, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday that the US would have to start making changes to the military posture on the peninsula if talks with North Korea make progress.

“Because over time, this negotiation will take a form where we’re going to have to start making some changes to the military posture on the peninsula. And we’re prepared to do that,” said Dunford, without elaborating what changes were to be expected. 

While the JCS spokesperson later said there were currently no plans underway to reduce the US military presence on the peninsula, some have questioned whether the allies will see further suspension of joint military exercises next year.

During his Senate confirmation hearing in September, Abrams said that the halt in the August Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise has harmed readiness. While the suspension was a “prudent risk,” it had caused a “slight degradation” in military readiness, he noted.

Despite the challenges, Abrams stressed that his commands will maintain a strong relationship with South Korea and other nations in the UN commands, to address collective challenges on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.

“I’m committed to continuing to build on our special relationships with ROK and each of UN sending states and national contingence as we work together in our collective missions for a peaceful and secure Korean Peninsula.”

Abrams expressed gratitude to his predecessor for helping the allies get to a point “that was unimaginable years ago.” Brooks had led the US military efforts since April 2016, a period marked by the threat of nuclear war with North Korea and an unprecedented inter-Korean detente

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