- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

SEOUL — Provocations along the demilitarized zone separating North Korea and South Korea have declined over the past year as thousands of South Koreans are regularly visiting the North, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea said yesterday.

However, Army Gen. Leon LaPorte, the top military commander here, said the threat from North Korea has not diminished.

“I would say probably in the past 12 to 18 months we have experienced less incidents of provocation along the demilitarized zone or in the West Sea,” Gen. LaPorte told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“It appears that [the North Koreans] are being less provocative,” the four-star general said. “It does not mean that they have reduced their disposition of forces. But the number of incidents have been reduced.”

Incidents in the past have involved shootings and attacks by small groups of North Korean soldiers. There also have been aerial encounters between North Korean warplanes and U.S. and South Korean planes.

North Korea “has perhaps realized they need assistance from South Korea,” Gen. LaPorte said. “They do not want to cause problems with the economic initiatives that are ongoing. Perhaps they do not want an incident along the DMZ to be dysfunctional to the six-party talks” involving South Korea and North Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.

Gen. LaPorte said the South Korean policy of engagement with the North has brought some benefits.

“It does reduce tension and it provides tremendous interaction,” he said. “So the United States has supported South Korea’s engagement efforts and inner Korean economic initiatives.”

North Korea’s military remains a threat, the general said, but credited “the strong deterrence capabilities of the [South Korean-U.S.] alliance” with discouraging aggression.

Gen. LaPorte said North Korean forces are being watched very closely and there has been no change in the posture of their forces over the past year.

One trend, however, is the apparent reduction in large-scale exercises by North Korean ground forces , a move that Gen. LaPorte said is “due to fuel constraints or their attempting to husband their fuel sources.”

North Korea’s military has 1.2 million troops, along with 12,000 artillery pieces, 1,800 aircraft and 800 naval vessels. North Korea is still spending between 35 percent and 40 percent of its gross domestic product on military goods at a time when the country is in dire poverty.

Gen. LaPorte said the U.S. military is on schedule to reduce the 37,500 troops here by 12,500 over the next several years. By the end of this year, 8,000 troops will have been withdrawn, he said.

Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. LaPorte are taking part in the 37th annual Security Consultative Meeting today. The talks are expected to include discussions about South Korea taking a greater role in operational control of its forces. Also, the talks will discuss the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” — the threat to use nuclear weapons to deter a massive North Korean invasion.

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