Halfway through the around-the-clock Key Resolve drills Friday, 8th U.S. Army Commander Lt. Gen. John D. Johnson remained full of energy as he underscored that the allied forces were ready to cope with North Korean threats.
At the exercise headquarters at the Warrior Base, just south of the Demilitarized Zone, Korean and American troops were seamlessly integrated in the annual computer-simulated drills, which Seoul led for the first time in preparation for the transfer of wartime operational control in 2015.
Despite their hectic schedule, the troops gathered early in the day to pay respects to the 46 deceased crewmembers of South Korean corvette Cheonan, which was sunk by North Korea’s torpedo attack on March 26, 2010.
“The men we honor here today are patriots. They were performing the duties as part of this alliance to protect people of the Republic of Korea. Their loss was tragic and unnecessary,” Johnson said at the memorial ceremony.
The commander, whose term as EUSA chief ends in May, said the great experiences he had while working with Korean staff would be the highlight of his career. Following are excerpts of the interview with the commander.
Korea Herald: What do you think about recent North Korean threats including its bellicose verbal statements?
John D. Johnson: We take all these kinds of threats very seriously. We don’t have a choice but to ensure that we look very closely at what they’re doing. And both ROK (Republic of Korea) and U.S. leaders, and the resources we have focus on this, watching this very closely to make sure that we have the capability to do our job. For a military person, the best way to do that is to demonstrate that you have all the capabilities to do your job to defend. We have the wherewithal to do our job. I’m confident of that. What’s got to be clear is that this (North Korea’s threats) is not the way to solve our problems here. This is not going to lead us to stability and security.
KH: Is the alliance ready to deal with the threats? Are the threats just for political purposes?
Johnson: The alliance is ready to deal with it. It’s important that we have the kind of capabilities that we have here on the peninsula, and that we have the capabilities that we can bring here if needed. And I am confident that we do.
It would be very difficult for me to try and understand the intentions of why North Korea makes these kinds of threats. But I will say this. It’s not helpful. This demonstrates a path that’s not going to lead us toward peace and stability.
KH: What is your assessment of the leadership of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un?
Johnson: I know and I can read what his regime says, those words that are attributed to him and obviously I see his actions. And it certainly appears that he’s on the same path that his father was on before him. I hope that as he continues to mature as a leader, he will see that there are much better ways to solve his problems.
KH: There have recently been many incidents involving U.S. soldiers. Can you comment on these?
Johnson: First of all, America has, for 60 years, sent its sons and daughters to Korea to protect Korea. And we do that because of the agreement we have between our two nations. We’ve also come to know Koreans and respect Koreans and their culture.
And the vast majority of my soldiers, well over 99 percent of my soldiers, see it exactly that way. They behave themselves. They respect Koreans. They enjoy the culture, the food and the opportunities to travel here, etc. We have some soldiers who don’t behave themselves. When that happens, I, as a commander, take responsibility for that because they work for me, I represent our country and our army here in Korea.
My intention, my direction to my command is to cooperate fully in Korea because we are partners here in Korea, but to a larger extent we’re guests here in Korea. So we’re here to do our job, but as individuals we live here among Koreans.
We have classes and cultural indoctrinations so that they have an opportunity to understand the culture and differences. But in the end, it really boils down to the golden rule: treat others the way you would be treated. If in those few cases where my soldiers crossed the line, then we would do everything we can do, coordination with the ROK authorities, to find the truth and take the appropriate action.
KH: What are new or recent measures to strengthen troop discipline?
Johnson: As you know, it’s well over a year ago that we reimposed the curfew. And this was one of the measures to ensure that we had better control over our soldiers for readiness purposes. ... But it also had the added benefit of not having soldiers out all night on the Korean economy.
We have increased leader training. The better trained leaders are, the better they’re able to help their soldiers understand that culture, fully understand what’s right and wrong, and how to behave. We imposed a buddy system so that soldiers go with a friend because even when you had a little too much to drink, having a friend to say, “Wait a minute, that’s not appropriate,” settles most situations before they ever become a problem.
KH: An Apache attack helicopter unit is to return to the peninsula. Are there any other efforts to bring in new equipment here to better deter North Korea?
Johnson: The combat aviation brigade we have here has in the past had an additional aviation battalion. (U.S. Forces Korea Commander) Gen. Thurman has been very clear that he believes that that aviation battalion should return here to fill out the capabilities of that organization. And right now we’re working to try to make that possible.
I have great confidence that’s going to happen. I believe that if we’re able to bring the attack/reconnaissance squadron back to Korea, it would be just another way of improving our combat capability, our readiness and also a demonstration of our commitment.
One of the things that are not always obvious to everyone is the kinds of things we do here to improve every day. We have the newest battle tanks in the U.S. Army here in Korea. We have the newest armored personnel carriers here in Korea. We have very top-of-the line attack helicopters, Apache, here in Korea. We have the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that we have used very well in Iraq and Afghanistan.
KH: What do you think about growing calls here for Seoul’s nuclear armament or redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s nuclear threats?
Johnson: Obviously I can’t comment on specific capabilities we have. But I can say this: The U.S. is dedicated to making sure that, as we do in others, we provide the protection that South Korea needs from most kinds of threats. We work very hard to make sure we have that capability. We work very hard with our ROK partners to make sure that that is factored into the way we deter aggression and protect the Republic of Korea. So I’m confident in our capability to do that.
KH: Experts say that the U.S. has no ground-based tactical nukes to redeploy to the peninsula as they have only some for air force operations in NATO and naval operations for the U.S. mainland. Is it true?
Johnson: I really can’t talk about capabilities like that. But what I can do is reiterate what I said. We have the wherewithal to do what we have to do here. We have the wherewithal to reinforce our capabilities here. With those capabilities we need to face that threat.
KH: Are the preparations for the OPCON transfer proceeding well?
Johnson: First, I think we’re exactly on the right track to achieve that. And I think we’re focused on the right kind of things. I mean, you see that around here ― the fact that we have the integration. Here you see that in any command post you go to, whether it’s the air force element or the CFC, the marines or the navy, you see this integration. And we have a very well-laid-out plan. But as I said before, soldiers are trained to continuously assess and reassess so that we can make the changes and adaptations along the way to make sure that we’re ready. So that’s the process we’re in right now.
KH: At issue regarding the OPCON transfer is now the new command structure after dissolving the Combined Forces Command as agreed upon. What do you think about this?
Johnson: I would tell you that I have served all over the world. I served in Europe for about 11 years in a NATO structure, I served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have studied command structures. I would tell you, when we say there is no stronger alliance in the world, at the level I work at, there is no stronger command and control system that I ever participated in. So the challenge for us is how we preserve that. So we have agreed we are going to change who has the lead, and there will be some natural reorganization associated with that.
KH: The U.S. Forces Korea has kept reinventing itself in line with the changing security environment. What is the future of the USFK?
Johnson: As we go toward OPCON transition, it has been discussed that USFK will be renamed to be “Korea Command.” That naming has more to do with the recognition of the change. The functions will remain. The things we do today, we will continue to do in the future, with respect to the ability to train and maintain readiness here of the USFK forces here on the peninsula, to be able to bring reinforcing forces in here and integrate them into the fight, and to cooperate with the ROK military and the combined defense.
As far as the U.S. Army goes, our changes are usually driven by better or new understanding of the environment we are in, new challenges, things such as cyberchallenges, weapons of mass destruction, threats and new equipment. All those things cause us, as you said, to continuously reassess and reform ourselves to be able to better do our job.
In the past three years the 8th Army has gone from being what you probably remember as an Army Service Component Command, focused primarily on training and those things, to being a combat command. So what you see today, these headquarters and these soldiers, that’s a reflection of that change.
KH: What areas can the allies work together on with regard to the cyberthreats?
Johnson: Certainly been in the news that there are those out there, whether its hackers or others, that try to gain access to the networks that we depend on to be able to do our job. So as we have in every other domain, whether it’s at sea, in space or in the air or on the ground, we’re developing the capabilities to defend ourselves so we can do our job.
There’s been a tremendous amount of effort by both of our countries and collectively to make sure we develop the capabilities to protect ourselves. I am very happy with where we are heading, as in most things we have got more work to do. But I am confident that we are on the right track to be able to protect our networks, and enable us to do what we have to do.
KH: Can you share with us your good and bad memories here in Korea?
Johnson: When I came into the army 35 years ago, I expected to have the opportunity to serve in Korea multiple times because this was the place people wanted to serve. Unfortunately, I never served in Korea until I became a brigadier general in 2006. I had been in Europe, in the Middle East and other places. And when I came here, honestly I felt robbed. I hadn’t had the opportunity to come here and serve. I realized how wonderful it was, but the year I served here flew by so fast, and I wasn’t able to bring my family because there was some sickness in the family.
And I thought that would be my last opportunity. When I was told that I would be coming back, the person who was the happiest was my wife because I have been bragging about Korea so much she couldn’t wait to come see it. But we came back, and Korea has been everything that I told her it would be. People are amazing, warm people, very generous people. John D. Johnson
● Lt. Gen. John D. Johnson is one of America’s most experienced army leaders. Since being commissioned as a second lieutenant upon his graduation from the Virginia Military Institute in 1977, he has taken on key assignments in Germany, Iraq and Korea.
● Johnson has commanded the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment and 24th Infantry Division, which was later re-designated as 3rd Infantry Division. He also participated in major U.S. overseas operations, such as Operation Desert Thunder and Operation Iraqi Freedom. His services also include a Pentagon stint as the chief of the Strategy Division in the Deputy Directorate for the Global War on Terrorism.
● As a brigadier general in 2006, Johnson was assigned as the assistant division commander for maneuver of the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea. Upon returning from Korea, he assumed the position of the deputy commanding general for the army’s Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command.
● Johnson has attended the army infantry officers’ basic and advanced courses, the Command and General Staff College, School of Advanced Military Studies, the U.S. Army War College and numerous other Army and Joint courses.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com