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Beware of N. Korea's Conventional Weapons, say Analysts - 2003-01-16

While diplomats around the world worry about the prospect of North Korea building nuclear arms, some analysts say the biggest immediate danger from the Stalinist state is its conventional weapons. While few analysts think fighting will break out on the Korean Peninsula any time soon, a conflict would be devastating. Some people wonder what could happen if the current crisis is not defused.

The capital of South Korea, Seoul, is home to 10 million people.

And some say those 10 million are being held at gunpoint. Buried deep into hills just beyond the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea are thousands of North Korean cannons and rocket launchers. They can hit Seoul and its suburbs with tens of thousands of shells an hour.

Robert Einhorn is a former U.S. diplomat specializing in weapons nonproliferation. He currently is a senior advisor specializing in Asia at Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think-tank.

"The reason that the North has deployed so many of these artillery tubes and rocket launchers along the DMZ is precisely to have leverage against the South," he said. "These forward deployed conventional forces hold Seoul hostage."

Diplomats are conferring around the world to ease the dispute over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Since October, when the United States revealed that Pyongyang had admitted having an illegal nuclear weapons program, tensions in northeastern Asia have risen sharply. North Korea has restarted an idled nuclear facility capable of making weapons, it has kicked out international nuclear monitors and hints it will resume missile tests.

Pyongyang says it will only address concerns about its weapons programs if the United States first signs a non-aggression treaty with it.

Washington says no to a treaty and has cut off fuel aid to the impoverished country. However, President Bush has offered to consider new aid programs if North Korea renounces its nuclear efforts - an offer Pyongyang has rebuffed.

While North Korea is thought to have one or two nuclear bombs, many analysts think they are less of an immediate hazard than the country's one million soldiers - most of them near the DMZ.

Seoul has almost 700,000 troops. Several defense analysts say the South has fewer cannons, tanks and combat aircraft than North Korea, but what it has is of better quality. It also has plenty of food for its troops, and fuel and spare parts for its weapons, which North Korea probably lacks.

South Korea also has an ally, the United States.

The U.S. force in South Korea is small - only 37,000 troops. In terms of defending Seoul, there is little they, or the South Koreans could immediately do against a North Korean bombardment or invasion.

Charles Heyman is the editor of Jane's World Armies, and an expert in the Korean Peninsula's military forces.

"The American forces there are really, to a certain extent, almost hostages," he said. "They are a sign of intent to the South Korea government that the U.S. intends to support them. It would be inconceivable if there was an attack on South Korea that the Americans would not reinforce like greased lightening to save their troops there in the first instance and then to support the South Koreans."

Within a few hours flying time, the United States has more than 100 combat aircraft that could strike back quickly if conflict started. In theory, Washington could start reinforcing South Korea within a month with tens of thousands of troops and millions of tons of arms and supplies.

But for the people of Seoul, even a few weeks could be too late.

It is a familiar situation for many of the city's older residents. In 1950, North Korea nearly flattened Seoul within weeks of its surprise invasion of South Korea. It took three years of fighting and negotiations to end the Korean War.

Although there have been reports of unusual North Korean troop movements along the DMZ, analysts say North Korea does not appear to be preparing for a new battle. And, says Mr. Heyman at Jane's, Pyongyang can not count on having the sort of success its invasion in 1950 had.

"The logistics chain that the North Koreans would need to do that massive attack is almost certainly now totally exposed to both air power, cruise missiles and long range artillery…," he said. "Remember, as well, that they took people by surprise at the beginning of the Korean War. That element of surprise is not there anymore."

Adam Ward, a specialist in East Asian security issues for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, warns that some sort of North Korean military action can not be ruled out.

"It would be foolish to rule it out, given the speed at which North Korea has carried out some of the actions that it has done…," he said. "I mean, they have been running up the rungs of an escalation ladder, if you like, with a certain amount of alacrity."

Given how quickly Pyongyang has ratcheted up the dispute over its nuclear programs, Mr. Ward says, it is quite possible it might try some provocative armed action. Among the possibilities are missile test launches, naval skirmishes with the South Koreans and infiltration by troops to spy on the South or conduct sabotage.

Most Western military analysts agree that if the current dispute flares into fighting, ultimately, North Korea would lose. But before it does, millions of people, many of them residents of Seoul, would die.