At a question-and-answer session with American soldiers, Secretary Gates was asked whether he is concerned about the U.S. ability to defend South Korea from a North Korean invasion. The United States has 28,000 troops in South Korea. But the secretary said South Korea's own army has grown in size and capability in recent years, and would handle most of the fighting, with help from American air and naval forces. He also said he is not particularly concerned about North Korea's conventional military power, which is often reported to be substantial.
"Frankly, this is an army that's starving. The average North Korea, at this point, is seven inches shorter than his South Korean counterpart. This is a country where the famine of the mid-1990s has affected the physical and even intellectual development of those that are now coming into the zone who would be eligible for military service. So this is a country whose conventional forces and capabilities are really, I think, declining," he said.
Still, Gates said he is concerned about North Korea's continuing efforts, in defiance of international sanctions, to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
"We're watching them very closely, and I hope they don't make any stupid mistakes," said Gates.
Secretary Gates spoke during a visit to Fort Drum in New York State, where many of the soldiers have served in Iraq, and some are preparing to return there, or for possible deployment to Afghanistan.