SEOUL — North Korea is spending as much as 40 percent of its gross domestic product on its military, including its nuclear-weapons program, to give its 1.2-million-man army key advantages over better-armed U.S. and South Korean forces, said Army Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, the U.S. Forces Korea commander.
North Korea’s conventional forces — including the world’s largest special operations commando force and 12,000 artillery pieces near the border — pose a continuing “credible military threat,” but have some limitations, Gen. LaPorte said.
The four-star general said North Korea, despite its poor economy, continues to invest between 35 percent and 40 percent of its gross domestic product in what Pyongyang calls a “military first” policy — building up military forces at the expense of the civilian sector.
“They are making, primarily, their investments in the asymmetrical arena,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times at his headquarters in the Yongsan military garrison.
“They realize that they can never invest enough money in their navy and air force to compete [with U.S. and South Korean forces]. So they are investing in asymmetrical capabilities.”
Asymmetrical-warfare weapons are those that provide a military advantage over more advanced militaries, such as that of the United States. In North Korea, that includes nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missiles to deliver them at both short and long distances.
Currently, North Korea can fire missiles throughout South Korea and at bases in Japan.
Gen. LaPorte said one major fear is that North Korea’s continuing work on nuclear arms will lead the country to eventually “weaponize their weapons-grade material on missiles.”
If that were to occur, “now you have a threat not just to South Korea, you have a threat to the region and the international community,” he said.
U.S. officials have said the recent discovery that Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan provided Chinese-language warhead design documents to Libya as part of a nuclear-weapons and missile program has raised new worries that North Korea soon will have nuclear arms small enough to be fitted on missiles.
Six-way nuclear talks with North Korea, aimed at negotiating the dismantling of its weapons program, have produced no breakthroughs despite several rounds of discussions with China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
Pyongyang threw another wrench into the latest round of inter-Korea negotiations, suddenly boycotting Cabinet-level talks with South Korea scheduled to start in Seoul today.
The communist state said it was angry at the mass defection of hundreds of North Koreans to the South last week. The South Korean Unification Ministry said that it deeply regretted Pyongyang’s decision and added, “We urge the North side to come to the talks at the earliest possible date.”
Gen. LaPorte said the North Koreans are investing heavily in deploying and building missiles, and have an arsenal of more than 800 missiles.
Asked what worries him, Gen. LaPorte said he is concerned about the continuing missile development by the North.
“Their growing missile technology, their continued research and development and testing of missiles, that is a concern to all of us,” he said.
U.S. intelligence agencies, in the past, have estimated that North Korea’s one or two nuclear devices weigh about 750 kilograms and that fashioning a warhead for a missile would require a much smaller warhead, ranging from 100 to 200 kilograms.
The general also said U.S. military forces will be more efficient and better prepared for war with North Korea after several thousand troops are moved out of the peninsula and thousands more are moved farther south of the capital as part of the first major relocation and consolidation troop plan since the armistice that ended the Korean War.
Gen. LaPorte said he does not anticipate that the new South Korean defense minister, Yoon Kwang-ung, will backtrack on the agreement to pull out about 12,500 troops and move others farther south to Pyongtaek and Pusan. Mr. Yoon took over last week after Defense Minister Cho Young-kil resigned in a political dispute over the military’s role in a recent North Korean naval incursion.
“I will give him an opportunity to make his own assessment, but I have no indication that the [South Korean] government does not agree, because the president — President Roh [Moo-hyun] — and President Bush have agreed to in principle with the consolidation of United States forces in Korea,” Gen. LaPorte said.
“I think once he’s had an opportunity to understand the issue fully and be briefed, that we will continue on the road that we’re on in terms of our consultative process.”
Gen. LaPorte, who also leads United Nations command and the Republic of Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, said he helped start the talks with South Korea that eventually will lead to the addition of new U.S. weapons systems here, including twice as many Patriot anti-missile systems, because the posture of U.S. forces needed upgrading to meet changed circumstances.
The initiative is a two-year effort to re-examine the roles and missions of the 37,000 U.S. troops in the country.
The last American observation post on the demilitarized zone, known as Camp Ouellette, will be turned over to the control of the South Korean military on Oct. 1 as part of the U.S. pullback from the Joint Security Area. All but 50 of the 240 U.S. soldiers in the area will be withdrawn.
Below that area, known as the Joint Security Area, but north of Seoul, is where the 15,000 troops of the 2nd Infantry Division — the unit that would be the first to come in contact with any North Korean military advance — are based. These troops are being deployed to Iraq and moved farther south.
The division currently is deployed in the same areas that it was located in when the 1953 armistice was declared at the end of the Korean War. Any conflict with North Korea would require the division to regroup before fighting, Gen. LaPorte said.
Plans call for the division to consolidate from 17 camps into five to seven bases, before moving to two “hubs” in Pyongtaek and Pusan, well south of Seoul, Gen. LaPorte said.
He said the realignment of forces will have no negative impact on security in the country.