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Two-War Strategy Faces Test

Battling North Korea amid Iraq conflict could mean longer fighting and more casualties.

February 13, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For decades, the U.S. Armed Forces planned and trained to fight simultaneous wars on the east and west ends of Asia if they had to.

But the mounting threat from North Korea, coming as a huge buildup continues in the Middle East for possible war against Iraq, has the Pentagon concerned that key parts of the military would be stretched thin if two wars erupted at the same time, defense officials and military experts say.

With airplanes and special forces troops also still tied up in Afghanistan, shortages in certain high-tech aircraft that would be needed in both North Korea and Iraq, and perhaps also precision munitions and some kinds of troops, mean a second-front war in Korea would take longer to win and entail more casualties, the officials and experts say.

Ultimately, the outcome of a two-front war would "not be in doubt," said Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "In gross numbers, the military can do what it is doing in the world today, plus taking on two problems," he said in an interview with The Times.

"What's at risk is the timeline you'd like to do it on," Pace said. "Of course, anything that is longer will have more risk."

The stresses have drawn new concern as the regime in Pyongyang has threatened to restart its nuclear arms program, while the Bush administration has been gearing up for a possible campaign to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The North Korean regime, aware of the U.S. military's limits, has continued a series of provocative moves in hopes of gaining diplomatic advantage and American concessions. North Korea has announced that it restarted a key nuclear reactor, which would create more spent fuel rods that could be used for bombs.

There might also be a major delivery system, according to U.S. intelligence officials who said Wednesday that they believe North Korea has an untested ballistic missile capable of reaching the western U.S.

The United States has repeatedly said it wants a diplomatic solution. On Wednesday, the United Nations' nuclear agency declared North Korea in violation of international treaties and sent the dispute to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions on the already isolated country.

Miscalculation Feared

Despite North Korea's belligerence, U.S. officials say they believe it is unlikely that Pyongyang would risk the regime's survival by starting a war. Yet experts point out that the Stalinist state has miscalculated before, and some fear that Pyongyang, in its haste to build nuclear arms and gain desperately needed U.S. aid, could launch a military action or cross undeclared American "red lines."

A war on the Korean peninsula, one of the world's most heavily armed regions, would be bloody and difficult in any circumstances. U.S. military planners believe that the most likely scenario would be a North Korean invasion of its southern neighbor, rather than a direct missile attack by the North on the United States.

The long-standing U.S. military plan for the region, called Oplan 5027, envisions that the North Koreans would begin a war by launching a huge artillery and rocket bombardment from their entrenched positions north of the demilitarized zone in an effort to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire." Some U.S. military officials have estimated that the North Koreans could pump out 500,000 shells an hour from the 10,000 artillery tubes and 2,500 multiple rocket launchers, most of which are within 30 miles of the South Korean capital.

The bombardment, which would probably include chemical shells, could kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans in the first few hours, allied military officials have said.

Special forces and infantry troops from North Korea's 1.1-million-strong army, many of them dug into a honeycomb of 3,000 tunnels and caves, would surge across the demilitarized zone to try to quickly seize Seoul and advance as far as possible down the peninsula.

The plan calls for the United States to initially rely largely on the 600,000-member South Korean forces, plus the 38,000 U.S. troops and the aircraft in South Korea to fight off the onslaught.

In the case of a two-front war, the Pentagon's goal would be to focus first on the war in Iraq, and then to shift full attention to Korea when Baghdad was conquered, analysts say.

The plan says that after the initial clash, U.S. forces in Korea would be augmented with troops and planes from Japan, Pacific Rim air bases, aircraft carriers, Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. Ultimately, about 690,000 U.S. troops would be called in for a fight that the Pentagon has estimated would last more than four months.

The plan calls for the allied forces to ultimately push deep into North Korean territory and overthrow the regime.

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