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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

North Korea a Significant Threat with or Without Nuclear Weapons

08 March 2006

Pyongyang's "military first" policy prevails despite economic difficulties

By Jane Morse
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Even without nuclear weapons, North Korea's conventional military forces are a significant threat in the Asia-Pacific region.

That fact was underscored by North Korea's recent launch of two short-range missiles.  In a briefing March 8, White House press secretary Scott McClellan noted the Pyongyang regime has conducted similar tests in the past. 

"We have consistently pointed out that North Korea's missile program is a concern that poses a threat to the region and the larger international community,” he said.  "We work closely with our allies in the region on ballistic missile defense and to maintain a strong deterrent against the threat North Korea poses."

The U.S. Senate examined this issue on March 7 during a hearing on military strategy and operational requirements that featured senior U.S. military officials.

Despite aging equipment and simplistic methods, North Korea's conventional military forces pose a continuing threat due to their sheer size and forward positions, U.S. Army General Burwell Bell told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 7.  Bell is the commander of U.S., United Nations and combined Republic of Korea-U.S. military forces in Korea.

North Korea has the world's fourth-largest armed force with more than 1.2 million active-duty personnel and more than 5 million in reserves, Bell said.  More than 70 percent of its active duty combat forces are deployed within 50 miles of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides North Korea from South Korea, he said.

The North's 100,000-man special operations forces are the world's largest and are well funded, Bell said.  "Tough, well trained, and profoundly loyal, these forces are engaged in strategic reconnaissance and illicit activities in support of the regime," the general said.

What North Korea's military lacks in quality, it makes up for in quantity:  with more than 1,600 aircraft, 700 ships and the world's largest submarine fleet, Pyongyang is capable of launching operations against the Republic of Korea and other nations in the region with little or no warning, Bell said.

Bell acknowledged North Korea's economic difficulties have impaired the readiness, modernization and sustainability of its conventional forces, but he observed Pyongyang's "military first" policy has continued significant investment in nuclear weapons programs, special operations forces, missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Most worrisome, Bell said, is North Korea's nuclear weapons program.  "North Korea claims to have nuclear weapons -- a claim the Director of National Intelligence, Ambassador John D. Negroponte, assesses as probably true," Bell said.  "These weapons are a threat to regional stability and, if proliferated, global security."

According to Bell, the Republic of Korea-United States Alliance, the United Nations Command, the Combined Forces Command and the United States Forces Korea "provide a potent, integrated team with dominant military capabilities to deter any provocation and deter escalation that could destabilize the region."

South Korea, under the leadership of President Roh Moo-hyun, is enhancing its war-fighting capabilities and working toward a more self-reliant defense posture, Bell said.  These efforts, he added, are consistent with the U.S. aims to encourage its allies to assume greater roles in regional security.

U.S. forces, in the meantime, are realigning south of Seoul's Han River, which will allow "a more efficient and less intrusive footprint" in South Korea, according to Bell.

South Korea, under President Roh Moo-hyun -- now "one of the leading economic powers and one of the preeminent democracies in the region"  -- is pursuing a policy of "gradual economic integration and reconciliation" with North Korea, Bell said.  Full implementation of this policy depends on resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, and the eventual goal is a formal peace agreement to replace the Korean Armistice Agreement, the general said.

For more on U.S. policy, see The U.S. and the Korean Peninsula and International Security.

Bell’s prepared testimony (PDF, 42 pages) is available on the Senate Armed Services Committee Web site.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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