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N. Korea Crisis Seen as Weakening Its Military

Asia: Economic woes have hurt ability to invade South, Pentagon says. But U.S. isn't ready to scale back troops.

November 26, 1998|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — North Korea's ability to overrun the South with conventional armed forces, a focus of U.S. military planning for almost five decades, is disintegrating in the face of the country's prolonged economic crisis, according to the Pentagon.

Amid crippling shortages of food and fuel, North Korea's ability to field and reinforce a mobile force of tanks and troops "has been largely undermined," a senior U.S. defense official said. As a result, he said in an interview, "any strategy they might have had to seize territory has been put in substantial jeopardy."

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the U.S. and South Korean militaries have maintained huge forces to repel an invasion that could involve tens of thousands of troops spilling across the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, between the North and the South.

Along with Iraq, North Korea has been the U.S. military's greatest worry in the post-Cold War world. And even recently, as the North has weakened, U.S. defense officials have fretted that its isolated, Stalinist leadership might try to seize great chunks of southern territory in a final "lash-out" attack before seeking peace.

But the changing view of North Korean conventional forces does not mean that the U.S. intends to scale back its military support for South Korea, where it now maintains 37,500 troops.

Only this week, the Pentagon released a new report on its security policies toward Asia in which it reaffirmed its intent to maintain U.S. forces in Asia at the current level of about 100,000 personnel.

Some analysts speculated that U.S. officials may be calling attention to these signs of North Korean weakness to send a message to the regime in Pyongyang--which has recently sought to frighten its neighbors with missile tests and hints that it is expanding its nuclear program.

The U.S. intention may be to point out to North Korea that Americans and South Koreans also understand some of the North's vulnerabilities.

Nicholas Eberstadt, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said Pyongyang's declining ability to invade might become a political problem internally in North Korea if the population realizes that the often-repeated promise of eventual reunification with the South--through the use of force--is now only a faint possibility.

The threat of such an attack has long been a tenet of nationalist faith in the North. Pyongyang's leadership has often asked its people to sacrifice so they could seize the South and reunify their country.

To be sure, the North's expanding ballistic-missile program, its huge chemical weapons arsenal and nuclear ambitions continue to deeply worry U.S. officials. And, as the defense official noted in the interview, the North could still inflict "devastating and unacceptable damage" to the South through artillery and missile bombardments.

Nevertheless, the declining threat of the long-feared invasion reflects how much the military equilibrium on the peninsula has changed.

U.S. military officials have noted signs of declining readiness for some time. The North Korean military has cut back on the training exercises that are essential for maintaining the skills of the personnel who operate its 4,000 tanks and 600 combat aircraft.

U.S. officials believe that the North Korean air force has reduced training sorties near the DMZ by as much as 75%; most of the training that does occur, they believe, involves routine flights rather than the more elaborate exercises that keep up the pilots' fighting edge.

This training has been cut back in part because of the lack of imported fuel. In addition, the military wants to avoid unnecessary wear on equipment at a time when spare parts are in increasingly short supply.

North Korea is believed to spend more than a quarter of its resources on the military, and it has carefully husbanded food supplies for the troops at a time when thousands of civilians are starving. Nevertheless, U.S. military officers point to reports that soldiers have also gone hungry and that this has hurt morale.

For nearly half a century, North Korea has planned for the invasion by excavating huge tunnels through granite mountains near the DMZ. Inside the tunnels are a vast inventory of warplanes and helicopters, tanks, troops and artillery. In the event of an invasion order, the troops would blow away the last few feet of rock and earth and emerge on the southern side of the DMZ to swarm across the countryside, experts say.

Another reason for concern about such an attack has been the proximity of much of the South Korean population. Seoul, the capital, is only about 30 miles away from the DMZ.

U.S. and South Korean military officers have usually assumed in their planning that the North's powerful drive might be able to advance for several weeks before the Americans and South Koreans begin to push them back.

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