U.S. reportedly plans to send Patriot missile batteries to South Korea

January 26, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration is planning to ship Patriot anti-missile batteries to South Korea, senior administration officials said yesterday.

The anti-missile batteries were requested by Gen. Gary E. Luck, the senior U.S. commander in South Korea, and the move is supported by the Pentagon. President Clinton has not yet formally approved the request, but senior officials said he likely will.

On Monday, the White House began consulting members of Congress about the move.

"I think there will be a positive decision," a senior official said.

In military terms, the case for sending the Patriots is straightforward. North Korea has threatened to suspend the armistice on the Korean Peninsula if the United States pushes for economic sanctions to put pressure on Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons program.

U.S. military officers say the threat is probably a bluff, but it is one the United States cannot ignore.

If North Korea attacked South Korea, U.S. intelligence officers said, it would launch its arsenal of Scud missiles at airfields and ports in South Korea to try to blunt air attacks and slow the pace of reinforcements.

The Patriot anti-missile batteries would improve the protection of those airfields and ports and reduce North Korea's ability to make a successful pre-emptive attack, the officials said.

The Patriot system is designed to protect airfields and other military bases by knocking the incoming missiles off course or destroying them in the air.

The Patriots deployed in Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf war performed this narrow task reasonably well but were not effective in shielding large populated areas.

One official said that "about three dozen" Patriot launchers would be sent to South Korea.

"It would make some sense to pre-position Patriots" in South Korea, said Brig. Gen. Robert G. Jenkins, the commander of the 51st Fighter Wing Command, which is based on Osan Air Base in South Korea.

Some former Bush administration officials had been urging such a move. And before the crisis, U.S. military planners had seen a need to place Patriots in South Korea as part of a general upgrading of U.S. defenses there.

But the new tensions, while making the military need far more urgent, have made the diplomatic ramifications much more sensitive.

One senior U.S. military official said some State Department officials had been wary of sending the Patriots to South Korea, apparently fearing that the move could upset the talks with the North Koreans on ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

As a result, administration officials had been discussing a plan under which the Patriots would be shipped to Japan, from where they could be quickly moved into South Korea in a crisis. But that was found to be impractical and was dropped, administration officials said.

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