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NEWS | March 13, 2014

US and ROK senior enlisted visit PY-do

At an island outpost at freedom’s frontier, Republic of Korea Marines stand guard just 17 km (10.5 miles) off the coast of North Korea, and just 7 km (4.3 miles) from the “Northern Limit Line,” the water boundary between the two nations.

The island, known to Americans as “PY-do,” and to South Koreans as “Baengnyeongdo,” has been a flashpoint in relations between North and South Korea. North Korea sunk the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan near the island March 26, 2010, killing 46 sailors, and fired artillery shells at the nearby Yeonpyeong Island Nov. 23, 2010, killing two South Korean Marines and two civilians.

Because of the strategic importance of the islands, a separate Northwest Islands Defense Command was stood up to focus on the defense of the five westernmost islands in June 2011.

ROK and U.S. senior enlisted leaders visited PY-do March 13-14 to assess the morale and readiness of the more than 3,000 ROK service members on the island. There are also more than 5,000 South Korean civilians living there.

“Here at PY-do, we are closer to Pyongyang, North Korea, than we are to Seoul, South Korea,” said Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea. “The defense of this island is one of the most strategically important missions we have here in Korea.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Troxell traveled to the island with Command Sgt. Maj. Kwak Sang-Won, senior enlisted advisor for the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff; Command Sgt. Maj. Lee Gil-Ho, ROK senior enlisted leader, ROK Ground Component Command, and ROK-US Combined Forces Command; Sgt. Maj. Brent Cook, senior enlisted leader, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Korea; Command Sgt. Maj. Kim Jeong-Geun, senior enlisted leader, ROK Defense Communication Command Force; and Sgt. Maj. Mark Gendron, senior operational advisor, U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Group.

The senior enlisted leaders met with leadership at the ROK 6th Marine Brigade, and spoke with “Black Dragon” Marines at perimeter guardposts and with ROK Air Force and Navy personnel on the island serving underneath the Marine brigade.

“Because we are in close proximity to North Korea, we must maintain constant readiness,” said ROK Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Lee Jung-Sang, senior enlisted leader, 6th Marine Brigade, through a translator. “Our brigade is on the frontline of defense against the enemy. We will defend the ROK with our lives.”

During an early morning  hike around the island perimeter, the senior enlisted leaders spoke with Marines at their posts to hear their concerns.

“We came to encourage them, and to hear their difficulties and hardships,” said Kwak. “Their preparedness for battle and diligent posture has impressed me, and now I will [assess] what else we can do for them.”

Because the tour is one of the more remote and difficult ones for South Korean citizens serving their mandatory military commitment, the young ROK service members are paid slightly more than their peers elsewhere in South Korea. They are given at least 45 days of leave during their two-year tour, plus additional leave for good performance during regular military training exercises on the island.

With ROK Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps units on the island, the island is secure from land, sea and air approaches. There is even a contingent of communications service members to protect vital networks and systems.

“I’ve seen from the eyes of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines that they are prepared for the mission and whatever contingency arises,” said Lee. “They are working hard and training hard, and we can let everyone know that we are prepared to defend the Northwest Islands.”

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