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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


Pyongyang's Nuclear Tests Lead to Questions About Military Capabilities

By Kate Pound Dawson
27 May 2009

North Korea's recent nuclear test and belligerent talk has put a spotlight on the Korean Peninsula. It has long been one of the most militarized zones in the world.

Since its nuclear test Monday, North Korea has issued a stream of harsh rhetoric, even declaring that the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War is null and void.

Not surprising

Experts on North Korea say its tough talk is not unusual.

Kim Tae-woo is the vice president of the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis in the South Korean capital, Seoul.

"This is very normal kind of language [for North Korea]," Kim said. " We already get used to that kind of practice."

Provoking reaction

However, he says North Korea does appear to be trying to provoke some sort of reaction from South Korea and other countries with its nuclear test.

The bitter divide between communist North Korea and democratic South Korea has left a legacy of military force on the peninsula.

Kim says North Korea has long maintained one of the largest armies in the world - with more than one million active-duty troops.

"So, when we consider the total size of North Korean population, slightly over 20 million, North Korea has over seven million regular troops and reserve forces," Kim said. "This is the reason why they call North Korea a barracks country."

Seoul has capabilities too

On the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula, South Korea has 670,000 active duty troops, with about 2.5 million reservists, out of a population of about 48 million people.

In addition, the United States keeps 28,000 troops in South Korea. An American-led United Nations force fought alongside South Korea after the North invaded in 1950. Although active fighting halted in 1953, Seoul and Pyongyang have never signed a peace treaty, leaving them technically at war.

Although the numbers may seem to favor North Korea, analysts are quick to note that its impoverished economy means the military lacks modern equipment. On the other hand, South Korea, one of the largest economies in the world, has a well-equipped force, able to use the latest high-technology weaponry.

In addition, there are about 70,000 U.S. troops in Japan and tens of thousands of others in Hawaii and on the U.S. West Coast, who could be called in to help South Korea, if hostilities resume.

US says it will not attack North

North Korea maintains that the American troops in the South threaten its survival, despite U.S. pledges that it will not attack the North.

During the past six decades, violence between North and South has occasionally flared. For instance, the North Korean and South Korean navies have clashed several times near their maritime border to the west of the peninsula.

Despite the tough talk from Pyongyang, several analysts on the Korean security situation say they expect a few more such clashes in the coming months, but nothing more serious. They say anything more would be too risky for Pyongyang.

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