Economic, Energy Woes Prompt North Korean Cooperation, General Says
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SEOUL, South Korea, Oct. 21, 2005 Economic woes and severe fuel shortages are having a significant impact on North Korea's military training, and increased economic and political cooperation between North and South Korea appears to be reducing tensions along the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries, the top U.S. general here told reporters.
Army Gen. Leon LaPorte, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, discussed the U.S.-Republic of Korea military alliance on the eve of the 37th U.S.-Republic of Korea Security Consultative Meeting, which begins here today.
LaPorte reported "a noticeable reduction" in incidents along the DMZ. "I would say, in the past 12 to 18 months, we have experienced fewer incidents of provocation along the DMZ or in the West Sea (Korean name for the Yellow Sea)," he said.
"It appears (the North Koreans are) being less provocative," he said. But he also noted, "It does not mean they have reduced their disposition of forces, but the number of incidents has reduced."
The DMZ itself has changed, as well; absent are the menacing signs and broadcasts that once accentuated tensions along the highly fortified zone. In fact, something almost unthinkable until very recently -- the crossing of the DMZ -- now occurs daily, he said.
Two major highways and rail lines now link South and North Korea, and some 2,000 people cross the DMZ every day, LaPorte said. During August alone, 40,000 people crossed the zone.
The general acknowledged that this traffic consists of South Koreans traveling north, not North Koreans moving south, but he still called the development "significant."
Most people crossing the DMZ are families traveling to a resort for reunions with North Korean relatives, or construction workers and developers working on an industrial complex being built in western North Korea, he said.
That project, one year into a 10-year development program, is expected to bring an economic boom to an ailing North Korean economy, LaPorte said. It will bring both jobs and electricity to a country sorely lacking in both, he said.
The industrial complex, along with the eastern resort, will ultimately be worth "millions and millions of dollars" to North Korea, LaPorte estimated.
LaPorte said this incentive is a likely cause behind North Korea's new sense of cooperation.
Outside the capital city of Pyongyang, North Korea has "a dismal economy," he said. "People live a dismal life. The energy infrastructure is decayed to a point where many towns, even in Pyongyang, have electricity for only four or five hours a day."
The only sign of hope is what's expected to be a good rice crop this year and the economic benefits envisioned through continued cooperation with South Korea, LaPorte said.
"I think perhaps North Korea has realized that they need assistance from South Korea," he said. "They do not want to cause problems with the economic initiatives ongoing. Perhaps they do not want an incident along the DMZ to be dysfunctional to the Six-Party Talks (focused on eliminating North Korea's nuclear program)."
Meanwhile, fuel shortages are having a noticeable impact on the North Korean military's ability to conduct large-scale ground exercises, the general said. For example, artillery batteries now "hot bed" crews to save fuel, he said. Rather than taking their full 12-howitzer complement to the field for training, units are likely to take just two or three howitzers and rotate crews in to train on them.
However, LaPorte said, fuel shortages still don't appear to be impacting North Korea's air forces, which "have been flying a pretty standard profile for the past five to six years," or its navy.
In addition, U.S. and South Korean observers "have seen indications of missile engine testing" during the past year, LaPorte said.
"Of course, it's difficult to make detailed analysis on the missiles because of the number of underground facilities (the North Koreans use to house missiles and transporter-erector launchers)," he said.
Despite a reduction in provocative activity and an increased spirit of cooperation on North Korea's part, LaPorte stressed, "the North Korean threat has not changed."
What keeps it in check, he said, is "the strong deterrence capabilities of the (Republic of Korea)-U.S. alliance."
"It is not the demilitarized zone that guarantees the separation of forces (of North and South Korea)," LaPorte said. "That's just a physical obstacle."
Rather, he said, it's "the clear, recognizable disparity between capabilities of the (North) Korean military and the ROK-U.S. alliance military (that) guarantees deterrence."