Monday, November 17, 2003

SEOUL — North Korea poses a regional danger because the communist regime is likely to sell its nuclear arms and expertise to rogue states or terrorists, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea said yesterday.

“North Korea is a known proliferator of military technology,” said Army Gen. Leon LaPorte in an interview with reporters. “We believe that nothing would prevent them from selling weapons-grade nuclear material to other countries, rogue nations or terrorist organizations.”

That could lead to terrorist groups obtaining and using nuclear bombs.

“That’s the concern that we have relative to North Korea’s nuclear program,” Gen. LaPorte said.

North Korea’s large military has outdated conventional equipment, but is backed by an estimated 800 missiles and nuclear weapons.

The North Korean military ranks No. 1 in the world in terms of submarine forces, special operations commandos and artillery, he said.

While the North Korean navy and air force are not well-armed, the ground forces are very powerful, Gen. LaPorte said.

North Korea’s “asymmetric threat” lies in its 120,000 special forces commandos and its chemical weapons.

“Their doctrine is to use chemical weapons as a standard munition,” he said.

A key worry is North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and missiles, the four-star general said.

“And our concern is that they have nearly 800 missiles,” he said. “The missiles themselves are a very significant asymmetrical threat. But if that was combined with a nuclear capability, now you have a capability that not only threatens the Korean Peninsula, but the entire region.”

Gen. LaPorte and other senior U.S. military leaders took part in military committee talks with South Korean military leaders, coinciding with civilian defense talks.

The key issue discussed at the talks was the relocation of the 7,000 U.S. troops at more than 10 facilities in Seoul.

South Korean officials want to keep some of the troops in the city, while Pentagon officials plan to leave a small number and move the rest farther south, a senior defense official said.

“It will be way less than a thousand,” said the official referring to the remaining troops.

Gen. LaPorte said the South Koreans would take over security at the truce village of Panmunjom sometime in the fall of 2005, while they would probably assume responsibility for countering North Korean artillery by October 2004.

As for enhancing U.S. capabilities, the Pentagon is spending $11 billion over the next several years on new weapons and equipment, including Apache attack helicopters, Stryker combat vehicles and high-speed ships that can move troops quickly.

South Korea, for its part, is buying U.S. surface-to-surface short-range missiles known as the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS.

South Koreans also are planning to purchase advanced Patriot PAC-3 antimissile systems.

Gen. LaPorte said the decrease in the 37,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea may be “one of the payoffs” of the multiyear program to realign bases and add new forces.

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