Fallon says N. Korean military is weakening
WASHINGTON » North Korea's military has grown markedly less capable of a successful attack on South Korea, in part because the U.S. has been choking the North financially, says the top U.S. commander in the Pacific.
The military mismatch between an economically powerful South Korea and a declining North Korea is widening year by year, Adm. William Fallon, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, based in Honolulu, told a group of defense writers Friday.
"I'm not going to discount this threat," he said of the North Korean military. "But their ability to sustain major combat for a lengthy period of time I believe is much less than it was in the past, particularly given the growth in South Korean capabilities."
His comments echoed in some ways an assessment of the military situation on the Korean peninsula offered by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld said Aug. 27 that South Korea no longer needs to regard the North as an immediate military threat. While the North is a threat to spread ballistic missiles and other dangerous technologies, its conventional military strength is eroding as its economy crumbles, he said.
Fallon cited two reasons behind the North's decline as a conventional military threat. First, its economy is starved.
"As I look at their people, just the physical appearance of them, they appear year by year to be physically diminished," he said. "There's also a major financial problem. We've been choking them financially from the outside. So their ability to get resources has been diminished. The trend lines are pretty obviously going in different directions" in the North and South.
Much of the public focus on North Korea in recent years has been its nuclear weapons program. Fallon did not discount the importance of the nuclear problem, but said it is unclear whether the North actually has nuclear weapons that it could place atop a missile capable of reaching American territory.
Fallon said he saw no reason to believe the North would invade the South. The fear of an invasion has been the main reason the United States has kept thousands of troops in the South since the Korean War ended in July 1953.
As the South has grown stronger, its reliance on U.S. forces has lessened in some respects.
"It's very clear -- and we've known this -- that the (Koreans) want to put on the table" the issue of when they would regain full command of their own troops during wartime, Fallon said.
Under the current arrangement, the South Koreans have full control during peacetime but in time of war they would place their forces under Combined Forces Command, a headquarters controlled by the top U.S. commander in Seoul, Army Gen. B.B. Bell.
Prior to 1994, the U.S. commander also had authority over South Korean forces even in peacetime. The arrangement has evolved from the Korean War, which began when North Korea invaded the South in June 1950.
The Bush administration wants the command change to occur as early as 2009, but the Seoul government favors a later date. The issue was discussed Thursday when President Bush met with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who has said regaining full Korean control is a matter of national sovereignty.
There are now about 29,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. That is set to decline to 25,000 by 2008.