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Monday, 12 June, 2000, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
North Korea: A military threat?

North Korea shows off its military might
By James Miles

Despite renewed hopes for reconciliation between the two Koreas, profound uncertainties will long persist both in Seoul and Washington about Pyongyang's military intentions.

South Korea is less inclined than its ally the United States to portray North Korea as a rogue state.
Military on display
The North has the world's third largest army

But both countries remain deeply worried about Pyongyang's ability to launch a sudden, devastating strike against the south as well as missile attacks against Japan and potentially, the US.

Foreign military experts are divided over whether North Korea would dare to take the risk of launching an assault, given the likelihood that it would trigger a counterattack by South Korea and the US that would almost certainly lead to a crushing defeat for the North.

Military build-up

The military balance is far more in favour of the South than it was at the outset of the Korean War in 1950, to the extent that even without the presence of the 37,000 US troops deployed in the South, South Korea might now have a good chance of winning a war with the North.
A picture of a North Korean test firing
Japan is also worried about the threat of a missile attack

But the North's continuing military buildup close to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) means the South and its allies can ill afford to relax.

In a statement in March to the US Senate Armed Services Committee, the commander of the US forces in South Korea, General Thomas A Schwartz, described North Korea as the country most likely to involve the United States in a large-scale war.

He said that despite the North's economic hardships, the country's military continued to grow, not only in terms of conventional forces but also increasingly in "asymmetrical" capability, including missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Super missile

Although the North says it has suspended its development of new ballistic missiles since last September, the US continues to cite the future possibility of a North Korean missile attack as one of the main justifications for developing anti-ballistic missile defence systems despite the objections of Russia and China.
Soldiers from North and South Korea
Soldiers from the North and South watch each other across the border

Of particular concern to Washington is an untested North Korean missile, the Taepodong 2, which some analysts believe could reach the western fringes of the US.

The Taepodong 1 tested by North Korea in 1998 demonstrated the country's ability to strike Japan.

Suspicions

Western suspicions about North Korea's nuclear programme were allayed to some extent in 1994 following the conclusion of the Agreed Framework under which Pyongyang shut down its Yongbyon nuclear facility which was suspected of producing weapons grade material in exchange for a promise by the US - with Japanese and South Korean assistance - to build two safer light-water nuclear power stations.
North Korean soldier
Tensions remain high on the border

But President Clinton's chief advisor on North Korea, the former Defence Secretary William Perry said in his review of US policy towards Pyongyang last October that he had ''serious concerns about possible continuing nuclear weapons-related work'' in North Korea.

There remains the possibility that Pyongyang managed to secrete a small amount of fissile material produced prior to the 1994 accord.

North Korea maintains the world's third largest army, with its ground forces numbering one million active duty soldiers.

Ambitious programme

General Schwartz said 70% of North Korea's active forces, comprising 700,000 troops, 8,000 artillery systems and 2,000 tanks, were deployed within 100 miles (160km) of the DMZ and could attack with minimal preparation.

He said that in the year to June 2000, North Korea had done more to improve its military readiness than in the last five years combined, including what he called "an ambitious programme to improve ground forces capabilities".

Even though North Korea has made the development of its armed forces a top priority in spite of the economic crisis, it is almost impossible to know how effective the country's military capability really is.

As William Perry put it in his report, ''the unknowns continue to outweigh the knowns'' in intelligence assessments of North Korea.

Despite signs that the worst of the famine may be over, it cannot be ruled out that North Korea will simply collapse - posing a threat not of war but of chaos.

James Miles, a former BBC Correspondent in Asia, is Research Fellow for Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London

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