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US, South Korea Defense Officials Rebuke North's Military Threats

Top defense officials in the United States and South Korea have gone public this week to offer reassurance of their ability to defend the South against any North Korean aggression. Their statements are an apparent response to recently heightened military rhetoric carried by the North's official media.

The Commander of U.S. Forces in South Korea, General Walter Sharp, says North Korea's army is "old" but remains dangerous because it is positioned very close to South Korea.

"They have a very large special operating force and have the world's largest artillery force that is positioned, again, very far south that can rain [munitions] on Seoul today," Sharp said.

Those comments were made a few days after North Korean official media delivered an ominous warning to South Korea.

A North Korean TV announcer read a government statement Saturday, saying South Korea should not forget that Seoul is only about 50 kilometers away from the military demarcation line that divides the two Koreas.

Speaking to business leaders in Seoul, U.S. General Sharp said North Korea is believed to have 13,000 front-line artillery guns pointed at or near the South Korean capital. Military analysts say those guns, and the North's short range rockets, could kill hundreds of thousands of people in South Korea in a matter of hours.

The United States deploys about 28,000 troops in South Korea, to deter or defeat any repeat attempt by the North to attack the South, as it did in 1950. U.S. forces help monitor and enforce the armistice that has mainly prevented fighting since it was signed in 1953.

Sharp says the two sides will work together and fight "side by side," even after wartime command of South Korean forces is transferred back to Seoul in 2012. He says the two militaries share the same set of priorities.

"First, is to be prepared to fight and win," Sharp said. "What that really means is to exercise and to have the operational plans prepared in order to be able to meet any contingencies."

South Korea's Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee issued his own response to North Korea's recent threats this week - including Pyongyang's 50-kilometer warning.

In parliamentary testimony, Lee says Pyongyang is only 150 kilometers from the border, and that such numbers are of little importance in modern military strategy. He adds that South Korea is ready to react decisively, whether North Korea engages in a limited provocation, or an all out attack.