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North Korean Military 'Very Credible Conventional Force'

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

SEOUL, South Korea, Nov. 18, 2003 – With 1.2 million people under arms, the North Korean military is "a very credible conventional force," the U.S. general in charge of defending against that force said.

"They have the largest submarine force, the largest special operating force and the largest artillery in the world," Army Gen. Leon LaPorte, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea said. He noted that North Korea has 120,000 special operations forces.

LaPorte briefed reporters traveling through the region with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Nov. 17. He answered questions on the future of U.S. forces in Korea and capabilities of the South Korean military, as well as the threat posed by North Korea.

LaPorte said the North Korean army is more of a threat than the navy and air force, because they have limited access to modern technology.

The sheer size of their military makes them a threat, even if their equipment isn't as up to date as it could be. "Much of their equipment is aged, but they have a lot of it," LaPorte said.

Perhaps more importantly, North Korea poses a significant asymmetric threat. The country possesses chemical weapons, and "their doctrine is to use chemical weapons as a standard munition," LaPorte said.

American officials are also concerned about North Korea's weapons of mass destruction, including potential use of its 800 missiles of various ranges. "The missiles themselves are a significant asymmetrical threat," LaPorte said. "But if that was combined with a nuclear capability, now you have a capability that not only threatens the peninsula but threatens the entire region."

In October 2002 North Korea said it had violated a 1994 framework agreement with the United States not to proceed with its uranium-enrichment program. And in early 2003 North Korea announced reactivation of its plutonium production program.

The other major threat North Korea poses is through proliferation. "North Korea is a known proliferator of military technology," including missile technology, LaPorte said.

LaPorte said officials are concerned that North Korea could provide weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons or nuclear material, to terrorist organizations.

"We believe that nothing would prevent them from selling weapons-grade nuclear material to other countries, rogue nations or terrorist nations," he said.

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