A weaker but difficult adversary

Economic collapse has sapped North Korea's military capabilities, U.S. officials say NORTH KOREA CRISIS

October 10, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- North Korea's announcement yesterday that it had detonated a nuclear device in an underground test raised anew the prospect of a military clash on the Korean peninsula. But unlike past crises, U.S. officials now say that North Korea's military has deteriorated significantly as the isolated communist regime struggles with an economy in collapse and agricultural mismanagement that is slowly starving its people.

Still, North Korea retains enough military capacity to be a tough target for any would-be invader, and its steep mountains and deep ravines have helped thwart previous incursions.

"A military solution against North Korea has never really been on the table," said Norman Polmar, an analyst and writer specializing in naval and strategic issues.

North Korea is believed to have enough nuclear material for up to a dozen bombs. Although it was unclear precisely what kind of device was tested, most analysts believe North Korea has not been able to shrink its primitive warhead enough to be carried on a missile. A first-generation nuclear warhead of the type North Korea is suspected of building weighs about 1,000 pounds, according to Charles Ferguson, a nuclear weapons expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. That is far too heavy to be carried on North Korea's long-range missile, the Taepodong-2, which failed after 40 seconds of flight in a test July 4.

North Korea is credited with having a million-man army, which U.S. officials believe is granted food rations and other benefits denied to most of the population. In addition, the regime has invested heavily in its special forces units which, under North Korean military doctrine, would precede any invasion of South Korea with sabotage and terror attacks.

But economic sanctions and a depleted treasury have forced North Korea to do without the fuel, spare parts and replacement weapons needed to keep a military force in good condition. North Korean pilots do not regularly conduct air maneuvers, U.S. officials say, and ground units rarely exercise in large formations. Much of North Korea's tank corps is equipped with T-62s used by the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

At the same time, the military capabilities of South Korea have improved greatly, U.S. officials said, with an active-duty strength of 686,000. Its army is equipped with the South Korean K1 main battle tank, with high-tech armor and fire control systems. The South Korean air force flies the U.S. F-16, among other combat aircraft.

Though U.S. forces have been drawn down in South Korea in recent years, 24,000 American military personnel are still stationed there, including a full combat brigade and strike-fighter air wings.

"If this nation were attacked, we are quite capable of defeating an attack and ending hostilities quickly," Gen. B.B. Bell, the U.S. military commander in South Korea, said at a news briefing two weeks ago.

Bell, in Washington yesterday for a U.S. Army Association conference, brushed aside a reporter's questions about North Korea's purported weapons test and what it might portend for stability on the peninsula. "Not now," he said.

Other U.S. officers have stressed that North Korea could not sustain a military attack.

"I am not going to denigrate their capability, especially with special warfare," Adm. William J. Fallon, the overall U.S. commander in Asia and the Pacific, told reporters recently. "I am not going to discount the threat, but their ability to sustain major combat for any length of time ... is much less than it was in the past."

Other analysts have said that the greater risk to South Korea is not a sustained attack from the North, but a lightning attack that could threaten much of Seoul, the capital, with destruction. A crowded city of 9.5 million, Seoul is also South Korea's financial capital, a glittering city of high-rise, glass-sheathed skyscrapers that lies barely two dozen miles from the North Korean border.

In the event of an attack, U.S. contingency plans call for a rapid intervention by American air power, followed by reinforcement by ground forces.

david.wood@baltsun.com

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