Thu, Feb 17, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Korea standoff may get suddenly worse

North Korea has claimed it has nuclear weapons while the relationship between Seoul and the US seems poised on a knife edge between affirmation and complete severance

By Richard Halloran


A flurry of news dispatches from the Korean Peninsula over the last 10 days has provided fresh evidence that things are spiraling toward chaos at that end of President George W. Bush's "axis of evil."

US relations with South Korea continued to slide downhill with Seoul's publication of a strange "white paper" on defense.

North Korea asserted that it has actually produced nuclear weapons and, by refusing to continue negotiations, showed that it has no intention of giving up its nuclear ambitions.

In the first case, South Korea's Ministry of National Defense alleged that, in the event of hostilities with North Korea, the US would deploy 690,000 troops, 2000 warplanes, and 160 warships to the defense of South Korea.

That statement was absurd on the face of it. The 690,000 troops would require sending the entire US Army and the entire US Marine Corps to Korea, leaving all other missions to the National Guard and Reserves. The 2000 warplanes would be more than three times the aircraft assigned to the Pacific Air Forces. The 160 ships would be about half of the US Navy.

This claim, which was presumptuous, not to say bizarre, implied that the government of President Roh Moo-hyun could not deal with the implications of the US decision to reduce its forces in South Korea and to revise the mission of those that remain. The primary task of the US forces will be to prepare for contingencies anywhere, not just to help defend South Korea.

The South Korean white paper indicated that Roh's defense ministry sought to assure South Koreans that the US would not abandon them. Ironically, that effort came atop rampant anti-Americanism in Seoul, an increasing tendency among young South Koreans to appease North Korea, and a growing South Korean preference for ties with China rather than the US.

As an Australian scholar and student of Northeast Asia put it, South Korean relations with the US are delicately poised between affirmation and severance.

An e-mail message to the defense ministry in Seoul seeking clarification was not answered by the time of this writing, which may have been because of a national holiday in South Korea. Even so, the defense ministry has not denied press reports that have been floating around for more than a week.

The ministry's English-language Web site announcing the release of its white paper did not mention the dispatch of US forces but focused on a change in terms. Instead of calling North Korea "the main enemy," the report noted North Korea's"conventional military power, weapons of mass destruction, and forward deployment of military forces." The headquarters of US Forces in South Korea professed to be unaware of the white paper despite articles in the South Korean press, the Associated Press, and on Chinese and Vietnamese TV news. "I have no information regarding this ROK document," said an officer speaking for the command. "However, as a matter of policy we do not discuss the contents or details of operational plans."

North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, were included in the"axis of evil" by President Bush shortly after the terrorist assaults in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. By claiming that they have produced nuclear weapons, the North Koreans evidently sought to confirm what they had hinted at many times in the past. They also said they would not continue the six party talks intended to dissuade them from going nuclear. In those negotiations, the US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia have held three previous meetings in Beijing.

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