Majority U.S. view is that North Korea will not invade But no one really knows how desperate nation is


TOKYO -- Every evening, South Korean soldiers rake some beautiful white beaches, smoothing out the sand from one end to the other. The point is to be able to check for footprints in the morning to see if a new Korean War is breaking out.

Three times this month, heavily armed North Korean troops entered the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, violating the terms of the armistice that has kept the peace since the end of the Korean War. The incursions have also triggered a furious debate within U.S. intelligence circles.

The clear majority view, and the one that most top U.S. officials subscribe to, is that North Korea would not be so foolish as to launch a suicidal attack on the South.

The minority view is at the other extreme: These government analysts argue that North Korea may be trying to desensitize the West to incursions in preparation for a major invasion in the coming months.

Yet even though policy-makers subscribe to the majority view, and do not believe the North will attack, they worry enough that President Clinton has adjusted his schedule to extend talks with South Korean leaders during a visit to South Korea Tuesday.

While many believe that an invasion is highly unlikely, they also realize that they cannot afford to be wrong -- and the starting point for North Korea watchers is that no one really knows what is going on there.

Everybody has a good reason for North Korea not invading: It would lose -- although it is not clear whether the North realizes this. Motivations for why it might invade are trickier and mostly have to do with its disastrous economic situation.

The fear is that North Korea might attack in a desperate gamble to avoid collapse, perhaps even to force negotiations with the United States leading to a peace treaty and normalized political and trade relations.

"We worry that in a very short period, this country will either collapse or take aggressive actions against the South in a desperate attempt to divert attention from its internal situation," Gen. Gary E. Luck, the top U.S. commander in South Korea, told Congress last month.

"It is entirely possible that the leadership in Pyongyang is not, or will not remain, cohesive enough to make rational decisions."

For all the disagreement about the likelihood of war, there is a consensus about how it would begin. The North would infiltrate some of its 80,000-strong special forces into areas of South Korea far from the front lines, U.S. and South Korean military experts say.

They would arrive by Hovercraft, light planes, submarines and boats. That is why the South Koreans still rake some beaches to check for footprints -- although these days they look more for radar images of infiltrators.

These elite North Korean troops would proceed to attack command posts, destroy U.S. and South Korean military aircraft and create havoc in South Korea.

At about the same time, North Korea would launch a huge artillery barrage against South Korean and U.S. military forces, as well as key government ministries in Seoul.

North Korean tanks and trucks would also be expected to pour across the border.

To avoid South Korean defenses, North Korea's infantry would use tunnels dug by its army underneath the border. Four tunnels have been found so far, the deepest being 450 feet beneath the surface. South Korean experts say that based on accounts by defectors they believe there are about 20 more such tunnels.

Although North Korea may have a couple of nuclear weapons, it is not clear how they could be delivered, and U.S. planners are more worried by the North's 1,000-ton stockpile of chemical weapons.

"I think you would probably see the first major use of chemical agents since World War I," said a U.S. military expert who is in the minority predicting a strong chance of war.

Still, U.S. planners say that the United States and South Korea would quickly establish air and naval superiority, and there is virtual unanimity that in the end the North Korean regime would be destroyed.

"The problem is not that North Korea can defeat us, but that they think they can," said the U.S. government expert who worries about an invasion soon.

This official, like some others, is afraid that the North Koreans will find the alternative -- not invading -- also suicidal. Almost everyone believes that North Korea is on a trajectory toward collapse.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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