In a major policy change intended to dramatize U.S. concerns about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney is expected to announce today that the United States is suspending planned troop withdrawals from South Korea.
The decision, reached in recent weeks amid growing American worries that North Korea is close to producing an atomic weapon, will be announced at the conclusion of meetings between Cheney and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong Koo, according to knowledgeable officials.
The United States has 39,000 troops in South Korea and had intended to reduce that number to about 30,000 over the next four to five years. Instead, Washington will withdraw only 3,000 troops by the end of 1992 and halt all further reductions, according to a senior U.S. official traveling with Cheney.
“We have agreed with the South Koreans on a postponement of the second phase of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula, based on our extreme concern about the North Korean nuclear program and the threat it poses to the region,” the official said. The official added that “at a time when North Korea appears to be making progress in nuclear weapons development, we think it would send the wrong signal to continue with the planned reductions.”
Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also discussed with their South Korean counterparts the possible use of force to destroy North Korean nuclear installations, the official said.
While both sides agreed that America and its allies would keep pursuing diplomatic means to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, they did not rule out possible military action against Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities, the senior official said.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III recently visited Asian capitals, urging South Korean, Japanese and Chinese leaders to exert pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. Those diplomatic efforts will continue, Pentagon officials said, but Washington wanted to take a more concrete step to demonstrate U.S. resolve to employ all necessary means to prevent Pyongyang from acquiring nuclear arms.
North Korea is known to have at least two nuclear reactors dedicated to weapons development and is at work on a plant to reprocess spent reactor fuel into weapons-grade plutonium.
Little else is known about the size and scope of the North Korean weapons program, but a classified Defense Department intelligence assessment predicts that Pyongyang will be able to test a nuclear device by late 1994 and produce a deliverable weapon by the following year.
North Korea has a stockpile of Scud missiles acquired over the years from its former chief sponsor, the Soviet Union, and has improved both the accuracy and range of the ballistic missiles, threatening not only South Korea but Japan and China.
While no startling new intelligence about the North Korean weapons program has come to light in recent months, officials said, revelations about the sophistication of Iraq’s nuclear weapons efforts have heightened concern about proliferation of nuclear technology elsewhere in the Third World.
“The experience with Iraq has been instructive to us about the limitations of intelligence, much less an inspection program,” a senior defense official said. “We are very much concerned about how much you can know when a country is determined to pursue a nuclear program and has the means to pursue it that is clandestine.”
President Bush announced in September that the United States will withdraw all ground-based nuclear weapons from South Korea, as well as from Navy ships that patrol the region. U.S. officials said more recently that the United States also will remove all air-dropped nuclear bombs from the peninsula.
South Korean President Roh Tae Woo said two weeks ago that Seoul will renounce the manufacture, possession or use of nuclear weapons.
Both announcements were intended, in part, to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons development, but there has been no formal signal from Pyongyang that it intends to do so.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that government sources in Seoul said North Korea has agreed in principle to a call to rid the peninsula of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The AP’s sources cautioned that it is premature to expect North Korea to open its nuclear facilities to international inspection. But one said that tentative agreement could lead to future negotiations.
Reports of the agreement came after a border meeting between South Korean and North Korean officials preparing for talks Dec. 10-13 between prime ministers of the two nations.
The national news agency Yonhap also reported an accord but then quoted Lee Dong Bok, one of three South Korean delegates at the meeting, as denying a North Korean agreement. Lee could not be located for comment.
U.S. officials said they are unaware of any new North Korean pledge on nuclear weapons and that it would not alter U.S. policy unless confirmed directly and unequivocally from Pyongyang.
“It’s one thing to make a statement, and quite another to agree to the inspections they’ve signed up to” under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which North Korea signed in 1985, a senior defense official said.
South Korean Defense Minister Lee has twice spoken publicly about the possibility of using military force to “take out” North Korean nuclear installations but retracted the suggestions after private protests from U.S. officials.
“We let them know that we thought it was a pretty dumb idea. And it is a pretty dumb idea,” a senior U.S. official in Washington said this week. “They wouldn’t get everything, and North Korea would feel it had no choice but to react. It’s a very volatile place, and (North Korean President Kim Il Sung) would feel compelled to go damage something.”
Lee’s statements were inspired in part by concerns about U.S. troop withdrawals and the ambiguous signal they were sending Pyongyang, a senior Administration analyst said in an interview this week.
“The South Koreans don’t like the drawdown of U.S. forces. They are very concerned about the message this sends to the north,” the official said. “They don’t want the north excited into doing something foolish. There’s a certain lack of confidence (in Seoul) in American resolve.”
This official, who is privy to classified U.S. data on the North Korean weapons program, said that Pyongyang’s nuclear technology appears to be largely home-grown. He said there is a small Soviet-supplied nuclear reactor at the North Korean weapons complex at Yongbyon, but there has been little nuclear technology supplied by other nations.
“They never had the cash like Iraq to buy technology from European sources,” the analyst said. “The Chinese have insisted that they’re not involved, and we’re inclined to believe them. The Chinese have come around to believing that a North Korean nuke and delivery system are not in their interest and appear to be genuinely ignorant of what North Korea is doing.”
The official said that U.S. intelligence agencies know little about North Korea’s arms program because the country remains one of the most isolated, secretive regimes in the world. He said Washington’s “driving concerns” are how little the United States knows about Iraq’s program and the fear that North Korea may be far more advanced than anyone suspects.
“We may find our worst nightmares coming true and there is a determination to do something about it,” the official said.
The drawdown of U.S. forces from South Korea is part of an initiative announced early last year to gradually reduce the forward-deployed U.S. presence in the Pacific. The program, known as the East Asia Strategy Initiative, was undertaken in response to budget pressures, as well as a dramatically decreased threat of Soviet intervention in the region.
The initiative envisions South Korea’s assuming a much greater share of the responsibility for its own defense and paying more of the cost of basing U.S. forces here. Seoul now pays about 25% of all local-currency costs associated with maintaining the American garrison in South Korea. Washington would like to see that figure doubled over the next several years.
Command positions now held by U.S. officers will be turned over to South Korean generals. For example, command of the Korean-American ground forces, now held by a U.S. Army three-star general, will be turned over next year to a Korean officer. Overall command of the joint U.S.-Korean forces will remain under U.S. Army Gen. Robert W. Ris Cassis.
Slowing Troop Withdrawals From Korea
U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney is reducing planned withdrawals of U.S. troops from Korea: U.S. troops now in Korea: 39,000 Announced 1995 U.S. deployment: 30,000 Cheney’s new plan for 1992: 36,000