The command of the US military in South Korea changed hands on Friday, amid the backdrop of tense ties with a nuclear-armed North Korea and growing regional threats from an increasingly assertive China.
Gen. Paul LaCamera took command of US Forces Korea, which comprises of about 28,500 American troops stationed on the Korean Peninsula, in place of retiring Gen. Robert Abrams.
LaCamera will also be in charge of the Korea-US Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command.
“Being ready to fight tonight means maintaining combat capability and creating time and space to enable the diplomatic process, thus preserving options for leaders,” LaCamera said at a ceremony held at Camp Humphreys, the USFK headquarters located in Pyeongtaek, some 40 miles south of Seoul.
“The most sacred trust given to me is to prepare our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, guardians and civilians to fight and win,” LaCamera said. “I look forward to us getting together in the true spirit of one team to strengthen our alliance, and propel it to even greater heights.”
“We’ve got a mountain to move,” he added.
Prior to coming to South Korea, LaCamera most recently served as commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific, headquartered at Fort Shafter, Hawaii.
In a videotaped address, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called LaCamera a “quiet warrior” and said he was “the right leader for the job.”
“I know it’s not lost on you how high the stakes are and how critically important this alliance is to our national security and to that of South Korea,” Austin said.
“Given the challenges posed by the regime in Pyongyang and by China, the U.S.-ROK alliance has never been more important,” he said. The Republic of Korea is the official name of South Korea.
Retiring Gen. Robert Abrams, who led the USFK for 31 months, called the role “the greatest honor and pinnacle of my 39-year military career.”
“Our presence in the ROK is as important as ever, and our adversaries know it too,” Abrams said. “Fifty-one million South Koreans sleep well at night because they trust us and they know that we’re ready.”
Gen. LaCamera takes over at a time when nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been deadlocked for more than two years, following the failure of a February 2019 summit between then-US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to secure an accord.
Despite the tremendous economic problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has continued to advance its nuclear development.
Pyongyang has not performed any nuclear or long-range missile tests since 2017, although it did fire two short-range ballistic missiles in March, in violation of UN restrictions. North Korea also displayed a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at a military parade in October.
United States and South Korean forces are preparing to stage their annual summertime joint military exercises, usually held in August.
Pyongyang has regularly criticised the joint exercises, describing them as hostile and a practise for an invasion. At a party convention in January, Kim Jong Un demanded for the suspension of the drills, claiming they breached a military pact made by the two Koreas in 2018.
Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, the most recent joint exercises, performed in March, were scaled back.
The extent of the planned drills has not been revealed by Washington. Last month, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the exercises were being assessed and would be “properly scaled to the threats and the challenges.”