Early in his Army career, Gen. Paul LaCamera was stationed at the Demilitarized Zone — the famous depopulated strip of land strewn with deadly mines that divides North and South Korea. Any patrol along the border area was well within range of Pyongyang’s fearsome arsenal of mortars and artillery.
Now nominated to lead American forces in Korea, Gen. LaCamera said North Korea’s well-documented nuclear ambitions are only one element of the threat it poses to the region. The regime of Kim Jong-un, he told a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, also maintains a formidable conventional military force.
“Their ability to put many rounds in the air and create panic is concerning,” Gen. LaCamera acknowledged to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
With President Biden and his team still trying to put in place their policy for the volatile region and the question of how to deal with the North’s growing ballistic missile and nuclear warhead stockpile, the general will take up one of the most important and sensitive jobs the Pentagon has to offer.
North Korea maintains one of the world’s largest conventional forces with more than 1 million troops, of which about 70% are deployed near the DMZ. While most of their equipment may be dated by modern standards, North Korea continues to invest in improving its firepower. Much of its long-range artillery is within range of Seoul and its 25 million people, Gen. LaCamera told the lawmakers.
North Korea’s “conventional forces are ready for war should its leadership choose,” he told the senators.
Sen. Jack Reed, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said North Korea is an issue that “has vexed U.S. administrations for decades.”
“Solving the long-term challenges posed by North Korea will require all elements of national power,” the Rhode Island Democrat said.
Gen. LaCamera, most recently commander of U.S. Army troops in the Pacific, told the senators that he was aware of the challenges that come with the new job, where he will wear three hats: Commander of U.S. Forces-Korea, United Nations Command and the Republic of Korea-United States Combined Forces Command.
“We face persistent challenges with the development of nuclear and advanced missile technical systems, cyber capabilities [and] asymmetric and military technologies,” he said.
Sen. James Inhofe, the committee’s ranking Republican, told Gen. LaCamera that he was concerned about the limitations on large-scale training in South Korea. President Trump sharply curtailed annual joint exercises as he pursued his unorthodox personal diplomatic outreach to Mr. Kim in three separate summits. Mr. Biden is virtually certain to take another diplomatic route.
Gen. LaCamera said he would work to “make sure that we stay within the band of excellence of readiness” and would hold “candid conversations” with South Korean counterparts on the need to train adequately.
“One of the things, if confirmed, I’ll be looking into is, How does it impact others’ ability to train and where does that put the mission at risk?”
Under the current plan, agreed upon in 1978, South Korean forces remain fully independent until a war breaks out, at which time they would fall under the combined U.S.-South Korean command — led by a U.S. general with a South Korean second-in-command.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a longtime supporter of engagement with the North who visits President Biden at the White House for talks Friday, wants to see that command structure reversed with a South Korean general in charge. Gen. LaCamera said he fully supports the shift.
“The Republic of Korea military continues progress to assume a greater role in the defense of their homeland,” he said in written testimony to the Senate committee. “There remains considerable work to be done to completely acquire the military capabilities necessary to meet the combined defense leadership roles.”
Although it could take “several years” before South Korea is ready to assume command of all forces, once that happens they will have a greater ability to defeat North Korea if it comes to that — even with less support from the U.S., Gen. LaCamera said.