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North Korean Threat Remains High

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

SEOUL, April 14, 1997 – Even though North Korea's economy is failing and mass starvation threatens its 23.5 million people, it remains an unpredictable and dangerous military threat, U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said here April 10 and 11.

"We have to remain ever vigilant against the kind of aggressive posture that the North Koreans still have adopted with some 600,000 strong forward-deployed at a time when their economy and their entire system needs relief from the burden they've been carrying for too many years," he said.

Cohen met with Republic of Korea officials, traveled to the demilitarized zone and met with U.S. troops at Osan Air Base during his two-day visit to Korea. It was the last leg of a week-long tour to the Asia-Pacific region.

"We and the Republic of Korea must continue to work together to be strong and vigilant against North Korea's threats," Cohen said. "We hope for a peaceful reunification on the peninsula, but we remain prepared for any and all contingencies."

North Korea continues to maintain the fourth largest military in the world, Cohen said. Nearly 65 percent of its 1 million troops are forward-deployed within 65 miles of the demilitarized zone. The military has chemical and perhaps even biological weapons, he said.

"They have the capability of striking the South at a moment's notice with scud missiles and other types of systems," Cohen said. "They have a very serious military capability that could wreak substantial damage."

A North Korean attack on the South, however, would be suicidal, Cohen said. "They would incur overwhelming damage and defeat." Nonetheless, the Republic of South Korea, assisted by about 37,000 U.S. forward-deployed American forces, must not let down their guard, he said.

"We have to remain poised to deter any plots that they might have -- irrational as they might be -- to take advantage of any perceived weakness on the part of the South, either politically or militarily."

A strong deterrence increases the power of diplomacy, Cohen said. "Even if reunification occurs, the United States plans to remain a long-term force for security and stability in the Asia-Pacific [region]," he said. Throughout his week-long tour of the region, Cohen repeatedly stressed the U.S. commitment to maintain 100,000 U.S. forces there indefinitely.

International officials are considering providing food to the North, but they want an indication North Korean officials are willing to change their system, Cohen said. Some fear North Korea's regime continues to subjugate its citizens, forcing them to undergo great deprivation, while continuing to spend excessive amounts maintaining the military, he said.

"This is not an obligation they can simply impose upon the world community," Cohen said. "There is still skepticism as to whether North Korea is prepared to pursue a path of peace or [is] simply trying to procure additional food to keep their citizenry fed while their military continues to function and soak up what limited resources they have."

The situation in North Korea is more uncertain than ever, Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili said here April 9. Vigilance, readiness through good training and close coordination with regional allies provide the greatest assurance to meet any contingency, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said during an interview with American Forces Network Korea. "Soldiers here are at the point of the spear," Shalikashvili said.

The possibility of widespread famine and other societal difficulties make this an unpredictable time, said U.S. Army Gen. John Tilelli Jr., commander of United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea. "And when things are unpredictable, it's dangerous," he said.

Countering the threat takes strength and vigilance, Tilelli said. "The combined [U.S. and Republic of Korea] force here is strong, it's ready, it's trained. It's an alliance that has kept peace and stability on this peninsula for many years. It will continue to do that."

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