North Korea's Slide Ends Military Edge: South's Gain Could Change U.S. Policy

By Halloran, Richard | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 13, 1996 | Go to article overview

North Korea's Slide Ends Military Edge: South's Gain Could Change U.S. Policy


Halloran, Richard, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


SEOUL - North Korea's military forces have suffered a steady decline in capability that has shifted the balance of power in favor of South Korea, could arouse calls to cut the number of U.S. troops on the peninsula and will likely confront President Clinton with the most complicated Asian security issue of his second term.

American officials with access to intelligence assessments said economic troubles, political uncertainty and diplomatic isolation have taken their toll on Pyongyang's armed forces.

"They have peaked and started downhill," one official said.

"They degrade by the day even as we speak," another said.

The officials were quick to add that this decline does not mean North Korea is less dangerous. Leaders in Pyongyang, who are ill-informed about the outside world, could miscalculate or could attack Seoul out of desperation.

North Korea has large conventional forces, chemical and biological weapons, and perhaps nuclear arms.

Even so, the United States and South Korea have the military upper hand now, especially as Seoul draws on its expanding economy to modernize its armed forces. A U.S. official, nodding to a South Korean colleague across the table, summed it up: "They've won."

North Korea's troubles have mounted for more than five years.

The economy has deteriorated 3 percent to 5 percent a year since 1989 through bad management, with some factories operating at 30 percent of capacity, and natural disaster, particularly floods that have severely damaged crops.

The faltering Soviet Union ended economic and military assistance to Pyongyang, and Russia opened diplomatic relations with Seoul and sells arms to South Korea. China provides only minimal economic and military assistance to the North while expanding trade with the South.

The death of North Korea's totalitarian leader, Kim Il-sung, in 1994 and the succession of his son Kim Jong-il caused political unease. Pyongyang has sought to protect its armed forces from this adversity but has failed in recent months.

Some American officers fear that North Korea's military decay will incite budget cutters in Washington to demand a reduction in the 35,000-strong U.S. force in Korea, a move the officers say would weaken the deterrence of North Korea at an unpredictable time. The Pentagon has begun a sweeping review of the U.S. military posture and must report to Congress in May.

For Mr. Clinton, the task will be to maintain enough pressure on North Korea to persuade its leaders to cease their belligerence and to open negotiations with South Korea, but not so much pressure that those insecure and desperate leaders resort to armed conflict to extricate themselves from a downward spiral that could end their regime.

This fresh appraisal of North Korean military power differs markedly from that of a year ago. Then, the Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that South Korea's military power was 80 percent of North Korea's and that equality would not be achieved until about 2000. …

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