SEOUL, July 2 (UPI) -- Leadership of the United States military in South Korea changed hands on Friday against a background of frosty relations with a nuclear-armed North Korea and growing challenges in the region from an increasingly assertive China.
Gen. Paul LaCamera assumed command of United States Forces Korea, which consists of some 28,500 American troops based on the Korean Peninsula, replacing retiring Gen. Robert Abrams.
LaCamera will also command the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command.
"Being ready to fight tonight means maintaining combat capability and creating time and space to enable the diplomatic process, thus preserving options for leaders," LaCamera said at a ceremony held at Camp Humphreys, the USFK headquarters located in Pyeongtaek, some 40 miles south of Seoul.
"The most sacred trust given to me is to prepare our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, guardians and civilians to fight and win," LaCamera said. "I look forward to us getting together in the true spirit of one team to strengthen our alliance, and propel it to even greater heights."
"We've got a mountain to move," he added.
Prior to coming to South Korea, LaCamera most recently served as commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific, headquartered at Fort Shafter, Hawaii.
In a videotaped address, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called LaCamera a "quiet warrior" and said he was "the right leader for the job."
"I know it's not lost on you how high the stakes are and how critically important this alliance is to our national security and to that of South Korea," Austin said.
"Given the challenges posed by the regime in Pyongyang and by China, the U.S.-ROK alliance has never been more important," he said. The Republic of Korea is the official name of South Korea.
Retiring Gen. Robert Abrams, who led the USFK for 31 months, called the role "the greatest honor and pinnacle of my 39-year military career."
"Our presence in the ROK is as important as ever, and our adversaries know it too," Abrams said. "Fifty-one million South Koreans sleep well at night because they trust us and they know that we're ready."
Gen. LaCamera assumes command at a time when nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled for over two years, since a February 2019 summit between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to produce an agreement.
Despite facing severe economic hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has continued to develop its weapons program.
Pyongyang has not conducted any nuclear or long-range missile tests since 2017, but it launched a pair of short-range ballistic missiles in March, in violation of United Nations sanctions. North Korea also showed off a new ICBM at a military parade in October.
United States and South Korean forces are preparing to stage their annual summertime joint military exercises, usually held in August.
Pyongyang has consistently condemned the joint drills, characterizing them as hostile and a rehearsal for an invasion. In January, Kim Jong Un called for the end of the exercises at a party congress, saying they violated a military agreement signed by the two Koreas in 2018.
The most recent joint exercises, held in March, were pared down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Washington has not announced specific plans for the scope of the upcoming drills. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said last month that the exercises were being evaluated and would be "properly scaled to the threats and the challenges."