- Associated Press - Thursday, December 30, 2010

SEOUL | North Korea has faster, more powerful tanks prowling the world’s most heavily armed border and 200,000 special forces poised to carry out assassinations and cause havoc in South Korea, a major military review said Thursday.

Seoul’s Defense Ministry report, released every two years, signals that the North’s military threat has expanded. It comes as President Lee Myung-bak’s administration scrambles to respond to criticism that it was unprepared for a Nov. 23 North Korean artillery attack on a front-line island that killed two marines and two civilians.

That attack, along with a purported North Korean torpedoing of a warship in March, has prompted South Korea to define the North in the defense document as its “enemy,” a stronger description than in 2008, when the North was called a “direct and serious threat.”

South Korean defense documents stopped referring to North Korea as “the main enemy” — a constant subject of North Korean criticism — in 2004 amid then-warming ties. The North’s state media angrily reacted to the new reference later Thursday, calling it a “grave provocation” that could trigger war.

The new document says the North intends to rely on its nuclear program, special forces, long-range artillery, submarines and cyberwarfare forces as a counterweight to South Korea’s high-tech conventional military.

North Korea has 200,000 special-operations forces, the report says, an increase from 180,000 in the ministry’s last assessment in 2008. Those forces are aimed at carrying out assassinations and infiltrating and disrupting key facilities in South Korea, it says.

The North’s army deploys many of its 13,600 long-range artillery guns along the demilitarized zone, ready to launch surprise artillery barrages on Seoul and its adjacent areas, the document says. Seoul is only about 30 miles from the border.

The North also has developed a new kind of battle tank with better firepower and mobility than previous ones, and the modern tanks have been deployed near the border, the report says.

The North’s authoritarian leader, Kim Jong-il, has made a priority of trying to build military power superior to the South’s, and its forces “are posing a serious threat to South Korea’s military,” the document says.

However, despite the North’s asymmetrical forces, analysts say there is little likelihood that North Korea would launch an all-out war against South Korea, whose military is bolstered by 28,500 American troops in the country.

The U.S. repeatedly has promised to keep South Korea under its nuclear umbrella.

The document reconfirms that the U.S. will deploy an additional 690,000 troops, 160 Navy ships and 2,000 military aircraft in the event of a war on the peninsula.

South Korea has about 650,000 troops of its own, while the North is thought to have 1.2 million soldiers.