March 21, 2005
North Korean military shrinking, officials say
Change may mean increased reliance on nuclear weapons
By Vince Crawley
Times staff writer
The ongoing deterioration of North Korea’s conventional military capability might force that communist nation’s planners to rely on chemical or nuclear weapons, a leading senator warned U.S. commanders.
Also, U.S. Pacific Command plans to retire the Japan-based carrier Kitty Hawk in 2008, leaving American officials just three years to persuade Japan to allow a nuclear carrier to be home-ported in Yokosuka.
And testifying March 8 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the chief of U.S. Forces Korea said he’s moving ahead with sizable troop realignments on the divided peninsula, with plans underway to send home another 3,000 soldiers this year.
At the hearing, Army Gen. Leon LaPorte, head of U.S. Forces Korea, and Adm. William Fallon, chief of U.S. Pacific Command, both spoke of North Korea’s eroding conventional military power. The Stalinist country has a 1 million-man army but remains incapable of providing basic living needs for its people — in or out of uniform.
North Korean pilots fly just 12 to 15 hours per year — as many as U.S. and South Korean pilots fly in a month, LaPorte said.
“They are resource-constrained,” he said, with a fuel shortage and an aging aircraft fleet that makes maintenance “problematic.”
LaPorte said U.S. intelligence has seen a major reduction in North Korean unit training exercises in the past few years.
Training above the brigade level appears to be done through command-post exercises without large troop movements. And when smaller units do train in the field, they appear to be “hot-bedding,” he said, meaning a 12-vehicle unit might send just three or six of its vehicles into the field, then rotate the crews through those vehicles, saving repair parts and fuel at the cost of readiness.
But while these indicators might point to a lessening of the threat on the Korean peninsula, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the committee chairman, worried that the reduction in that nation’s conventional capabilities may increase the regime’s reliance on weapons of mass destruction — particularly in light of the North’s recent claim to possess functioning nuclear weapons.
The woeful state of the North’s conventional units might back even rational military planners into a corner, Warner noted.
“If conventional forces are inadequate,” Warner told Fallon, “then planners must rely on the other” unconventional weapons.
Another Pacific Command issue discussed at the hearing was the Navy’s plans to retire the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, one of only two non-nuclear carriers in the fleet. The other, the Kitty Hawk, is forward-based in Japan, and the government of Japan, the only nation to have had nuclear bombs dropped on its populace, has historically refused to allow nuclear vessels to be home-ported in its territorial waters.
Fallon said he is not certain if Japan has an official policy against nuclear vessels and noted that the nuclear carriers Stennis and Lincoln have both made port visits. Still, he acknowledged that Japanese public sentiment seems to play a strong role in the tradition of home-porting only conventionally powered U.S. ships.
LaPorte also told the committee he is moving ahead with plans to reduce U.S. ground forces on the Korean peninsula and consolidate those who remain into two hubs well south of Seoul, South Korea’s capital.
In December, South Korean officials gave final approval to move 7,000 American troops out of the capital by December 2008 to expanded facilities at Camp Humphreys and Osan Air Base, leaving just a few hundred in headquarters positions in Seoul.
U.S. troops in South Korea number 32,500, some 5,000 fewer than last year due to the deployment of the Army’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, to Iraq.
Those troops, who were not accompanied by family members in Korea, will return to the United States when their Iraq tour ends. U.S. Forces Korea will shed 3,000 personnel this year and 2,000 in 2006, LaPorte said.
The final phase will involve a reduction of another 2,500 troops between 2007 and 2008, leaving a steady end state of about 25,000 Americans in South Korea.
Pentagon officials say gains in technology allow for the same level of capability and effectiveness with fewer troops.