U.S. commander reveals true purpose of troops in Okinawa is to remove N. Korea’s nukes


April 1, 2010

U.S. commander reveals true purpose of troops in Okinawa is to remove N. Korea’s nukes

The commander of U.S. Marine Corps troops in Asia has recently revealed to Japanese defense officials that the true purpose of stationing Marines in Okinawa is to remove North Korea of its nuclear weapons if its regime collapses, sources close to the government say.

Ironically, confusion within the government over the selection of a relocation site for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture has helped extract the true intentions of U.S. forces. The question is whether it will pave the way for the building of an equal partnership between Japan and the United States as the administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has pursued.

Top-ranking Japanese and U.S. defense officials secretly met at the U.S. Embassy in the Akasaka district of downtown Tokyo on the morning of Feb. 17 to discuss the Futenma relocation issue. The meeting, held in English without an interpreter, was proposed by Lt. Gen. Keith Stalder, commander of Marine Corps troops operating in the Asia-Pacific region.

The commander asked Japanese officials to support the plan agreed upon by Washington and the previous Japanese administration to relocate the base to an offshore area of Camp Schwab in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, and reiterated Washington’s official view on the issue.

At the end of the one-hour meeting, one of the Japanese officials protested to Stalder. “We are experts in security issues, so we understand it. But people say Marine Corps troops are unnecessary in Okinawa because you only reiterate Washington’s official view.”

The commander kept silent for a while, and then revealed that Marine Corps troops in Okinawa are actually there to counter the threat of North Korea, according to one of Japanese attendees. Pointing out that there is more chance that Kim Jong Il’s regime will collapse than a military conflict breaking out between North and South Korea, Stalder explained that the most important mission of Marines in Okinawa in such an emergency situation is to promptly rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons.

Stadler appears to have taken advantage of Japan’s concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons from North Korea if the Kim regime collapsed. Even so, it was the first time that a high-ranking U.S. defense official has revealed the true reason for keeping Marines in Okinawa.

U.S. forces had previously explained that the Marines are stationed in Okinawa to deter the threat posed by North Korea and to counter any rapid military buildup by China.

In June 2008, North Korea reported to China, which chaired the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, that the country had stockpiled approximately 38.5 kilograms of plutonium. Based on this, it is presumed that Pyongyang possesses six to eight nuclear weapons, but it remains unclear.

A joint military exercise between U.S. and South Korean forces carried out from March 8 included a special forces drill to search for and recover North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction including nuclear arms.

Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, told a House panel on March 24 that the U.S. and South Korea are prepared to launch operations to remove weapons of mass destruction from North Korea, admitting that Washington is seriously considering a realistic scenario of removing nuclear weapons from North Korea.

The most serious challenge for the United States in the Asia-Pacific region is to counter China’s rapid military expansion. However, questions remain as to whether U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa are effective in deterring the threat posed by China.

Michael Green, former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, emphasizes that Marine Corps are effective in countering China’s military buildup.

He pointed out that the Marine Corps have a mission of locating weapons of mass destruction stockpiled by North Korea if its regime collapses, and that its presence also sends a strong message to China that it cannot settle disputes over Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands through military force.

In sharp contrast, former Ground Self-Defense Force Lt. Gen. Takashi Fukuyama is skeptical of the idea.

“A deterrence to China’s threat can’t be achieved by the Marines alone. The United States, which doesn’t want to clash with China, apparently wouldn’t get involved in a conflict over the Senkaku Islands,” he says. “If North Korea’s regime collapses and ensuing confusion subsides, there might be no point in the U.S. keeping Marines in Okinawa.”

In his debate with Liberal Democratic Party leader Sadakazu Tanigaki in the Diet on Wednesday, Prime Minister Hatoyama emphasized that he can select a relocation site, which would maintain a deterrence, while lessening Okinawa’s burden of hosting U.S. bases.

“I’m confident that the relocation plan I have in mind is as effective as, or even more effective than the previously agreed upon plan in lessening Okinawa’s burden and ensuring a deterrence,” Hatoyama said.

However, the security environment surrounding the Japanese archipelago has been undergoing rapid changes and there are various views on the situation.

While the Hatoyama administration is desperately looking for a relocation site, there is no sign that Tokyo and Washington have examined the roles that the Marine Corps in Okinawa should play.

Yoichi Iha, mayor of Ginowan that hosts Air Station Futenma, dismisses the claim that U.S. Marines must stay in Okinawa because of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

“If the Marines’ presence is necessary because of North Korea’s nuclear threat, they can be stationed in Kadena (in Okinawa Prefecture) or Iwakuni (in Yamaguchi Prefecture). There is no reason why they must be kept at Futenma,” he said.

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