U.S. moving high-tech weapons to Korean DMZ

Military analyst describes Pentagon plan as more lethality with fewer troops

December 21, 2003|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEOUL, South Korea - Even as the Bush administration seeks a negotiated settlement to the North Korean nuclear standoff, an intimidating array of high-tech weaponry, much of it battle-tested in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being deployed south of the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula.

The weaponry has quietly been moved into South Korea since the summer as part of a significant restructuring of the 37,000 U.S. troops in the country. In return for moving American soldiers away from the DMZ, the Pentagon has promised Seoul, the South Korean capital, that it will spend $11 billion to bring in the latest armaments.

"More lethality with fewer people," is how one security analyst describes the new mantra of the Pentagon when it comes to the Korean Peninsula.

For five decades, troops from the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division have been dug in near the DMZ as the first line of defense against a feared North Korean invasion. As with other U.S. troops, the Pentagon would like to see them become faster, lighter and better able to respond to unpredictable global crises.

"We still have a lot of forces in Korea arranged very far forward ... where they really aren't very flexible or usable for other things," U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld explained early this year.

One system emblematic of this transformation is the new Stryker, a 19-ton wheeled armored vehicle that is supposedly light enough to airlift. The Strykers have eight wheels instead of treads and what they lose in armor, they are said to make up in maneuverability, which is especially important in the Koreas' mountainous terrain.

The U.S. military is also expected to bring in Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or "smart bombs," which can home in on their targets even when dropped at high altitude or in bad weather, according to U.S. officials. Another weapon expected is the GBU-28, a bomb popularly known as the "bunker buster" for its ability to penetrate underground military facilities.

Congress has given the Pentagon permission to research nuclear bunker busters, although such a weapon is years away from being developed.

"As a signal, I'm sure Kim Jong Il isn't thrilled with any of this," said Derek J. Mitchell, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, referring to the North Korean leader.

While the United States upgrades its arsenal, the South Koreans are expected to follow suit. Over the next month, they will deploy their first missile capable of reaching the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, the U.S.-made Army Tactical Missile System Block. Until two years ago, South Korea was restricted by treaty to shorter-range missiles, but the limits were eased as a result of the North's test-firing of a long-range Taepodong 1 missile over Japan in 1998.

"The North Koreans must be very nervous about this new response. They definitely see it as a significant upgrading of the military capabilities of the [U.S.-South Korean] alliance," said Seongho Sheen, a specialist in the South Korean military with the Asia-Pacific Center for Strategic Studies in Honolulu.

U.S. officials refer to the new additions as "security enhancements" and say they are in no way incompatible with President Bush's often-repeated declaration that he would like the North Korean nuclear crisis to be resolved diplomatically. The United States, along with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, is trying to arrange another round of talks for early next year aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear aspirations. An earlier round of talks in Beijing in August ended inconclusively.

"It is accurate to say we are enhancing our defense capabilities. That is different from building up attack capabilities," said a senior U.S. official in Seoul who asked not to be quoted by name.

But, as might be expected, the military upgrades are provoking a shrill reaction from North Korea's prolific propaganda machine.

"These fresh military developments are indicative of the U.S. scheme to escalate the military standoff on the Korean Peninsula and extend the sphere of operations of the U.S. troops in South Korea to the rest of Northeast Asia," charged the official Korea Central News Agency in a dispatch last week from Pyongyang, denouncing what it called a "massive arms buildup plan."

The pledge to spend $11 billion was made in June when U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz visited South Korea. But the Pentagon has been slow to answer questions about what is going into the $11 billion package in large part because of the myriad of exquisitely sensitive diplomatic issues.

Nobody wants to alarm the North Koreans unduly, which is one reason that little has been said publicly about the "smart bombs" and "bunker busters" that are expected to be part of the upgraded package.

South Korea is also uneasy about the plan to move the 14,000 soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division away from the DMZ, where they have often been dismissed as a "tripwire" but nevertheless have given the country a sense of security. There is also much concern that the U.S. forces will become an expeditionary force to be deployed to trouble spots around the Pacific.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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