The commander of U.S. and South Korean forces says North Korea has reduced the number of provocations along the de-militarized zone in the past year, apparently in an effort to protect growing economic cooperation with the South and ongoing multi-national talks that could bring it more economic aid. The general spoke shortly after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Seoul for talks with South Korean leaders on the future of U.S.-South Korean defense cooperation.
General Leon LaPorte could not provide any statistics on North Korean actions along the de-militarized zone, but he said the reduction in hostile incidents has been noticeable.
"I would say probably in the last 12 to 18 months, we have experienced less incidents of provocation along the de-militarized zone or in the West Sea," he said.
But General LaPorte said that does not mean North Korea is any less dangerous than it was a year ago.
"I did not say the North Korean threat was diminishing. The North Korean threat has not changed," he said.
The general says it is the strong U.S. and South Korean military presence that prevents North Korea from taking any action against the South, but he says the North may also have new motivations. He says North Korea is desperately short of energy, and its economy continues to be "dismal."
"Perhaps North Korea has realized that they need assistance from South Korea," he added. "They do not want to cause problems with the economic initiatives that are ongoing. Perhaps they do not want an incident along the DMZ to be dysfunctional to the six-party talks."
General LaPorte is referring to six-nation talks about the future of North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea has agreed in principle to give up its nuclear weapons program in return for aid, security guarantees and possibly a civilian nuclear reactor at some time in the future. The next step is to negotiate the details, which U.S. officials say may be difficult.
The general says thousands of South Koreans are currently crossing into the North every day to visit family members and to help build a new industrial zone. He says the exchanges are worth millions of badly-needed dollars to the Pyongyang government.
Meanwhile, he says the United States has reduced its troop presence in South Korea by more than 20 percent. The two nations have agreed to a reduction from more than 37,000 U.S. troops to 25,000.
He says 8,000 have already left, and the rest of those leaving will be out by the end of 2008, as agreed. The general says South Korean troops are developing the capabilities to take over the functions of the departing U.S. troops.
General LaPorte will join Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for annual talks with South Korean officials on Friday. He says a South Korean desire for direct control over its troops in a crisis is natural and the United States is willing to discuss it. But the general says he does not foresee a time when all U.S. forces will be able to leave the Korean peninsula.
In an opinion article published this week, Mr. Rumsfeld said South Korea is a mature power with a strong economy and military, and should continue to take more responsibility for its own defense.