SEOUL — 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 been quietly 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 soldiers away from the DMZ, the Pentagon promised Seoul that it would spend $11 billion to bring in the latest armaments.
"More lethality with fewer people," is the way one security analyst described the new mantra of the Pentagon when it comes to the Korean peninsula.
For five decades, troops with the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division have been dug in near the DMZ as the first line of defense against a possible 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
One system emblematic of the high-tech transformation is the new Stryker, a medium-weight armored vehicle that is supposed to be light enough to airlift. The Stryker has eight wheels instead of treads and can reach 60 mph. What it loses in armor it is said to make up for in maneuverability, which is especially important in the Koreas' mountainous terrain.
"It's one of those weapons that when you need it, you move it. That's the way things work in the 21st century," said a U.S. military source who asked not to be named.
The U.S. military also is 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, U.S. officials say.
Another expected weapon is the guided bomb unit-28, known as the "bunker buster" for its ability to penetrate targets deep underground, said South Korean defense analysts who note that most North Korean artillery at the DMZ is in underground bunkers.
Congress has given the Pentagon permission to research nuclear-armed bunker busters, although development of such a weapon is years away.
"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.
As 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 in the aftermath 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 on the South Korean military with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
U.S. officials refer to the new additions as "security enhancements" and say they are not 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. A round of negotiations 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 named.
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 U.S. pledge to spend $11 billion was made in June when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. 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 numerous extremely sensitive diplomatic issues.
Nobody wants to unduly alarm the North Koreans -- 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.