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(LEAD) U.S. forces in Korea seek bigger role in Asia-Pacific area
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Oct. 23 (Yonhap) -- A top U.S. military commander in Korea strongly indicated Tuesday that his troops will seek to expand exercises and other services outside the peninsula.

   The U.S. military is mapping out new strategies as the nation refocuses on the Asia-Pacific region and moves to transfer wartime operational control (OPCON) to Seoul, according to 8th Army commanding general Lt. Gen. John D. Johnson.

   "As we move towards OPCON transition, it is an opportunity to reshape those contingency plans and those operations plans," he said at the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) annual meeting in Washington.

   It's a "historic time" for the 8th Army as well, he added.

   At the invitation of the U.S. Army Pacific, the 8th Army took part in a training exercise in Japan last year.

   It marked the first time that "the 8th Army headquarters left the peninsula in 60 years," he said.

   "It was the clear demonstration of the ability to take forces in the Pacific and use them to train and influence and build relationships" with others in the region, Johnson said.

   He emphasized, however, that the Army's commitment to the defense of South Korea won't be affected.

   The U.S. has 19,000 ground troops in South Korea, two-thirds of the 28,000-strong American forces stationed there as a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

   The allies' joint defense posture is expected to undergo a major change when South Korea regains wartime operation control of its forces in 2015.

   It will lead to the abolishment of the Combined Forces Command, which has served as the control tower for joint operations.

   The name of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) will be changed to the Korea Command.

   The OPCON transfer will pave the way for South Korea to take the lead in operations, with the U.S. playing a supporting role.

   The general said details of that arrangement will continue to be worked out until the OPCON transition.

   But the core goal of sustaining the strength and fighting power of the alliance will not change, he added.

   Johnson said the U.S. troops in Korea will continue efforts to bolster combat readiness against North Korea.

   He said the USFK has requested Apache combat and scout helicopters be deployed back to South Korea after service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

   "That request is still in place," Johnson said, responding to Yonhap News Agency's question.

   The Pentagon and the Army are working on a way to do that, he added.

   Regarding North Korea's long-range missile threat, he said his military takes it "very seriously."

   "It's pretty clear that the North Koreans have had a persistent effort to develop missile technology," he said, adding the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Army are taking an "integrated approach" to counter North Korea's ballistic missile threat.