A Caldron Like Korea Is the Real Threat to Vital US Security Interests

By , Mass.

While Americans raptly watch the deployment of more than 50,000 troops to the Bosnian theater of operations, a far more serious situation is bubbling up virtually unnoticed. The real threat to vital United States national security interests is sharpening its sword on the other side of the globe. The North Korean military, which has apparently taken control of the government, has mobilized its forces to an unprecedented level.

The signals coming from Korea are alarming enough that the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence received a special briefing last week. According to unnamed US intelligence sources, the North Korean Air Force has moved more than 100 airplanes to bases near the Demilitarized Zone, placing them less than five minutes flying time from Seoul and the 20,000 American troops stationed there. The planes were moved during a recent exercise in which North Korea maintained radio silence and conducted operations in normally closed airspace near the border with the South. The aircraft are currently being maintained in an unusually warlike state of readiness.

North Korean Special Forces units and a newly created "special division" also are conducting worrisome exercises. Rice sent to the North to relieve hunger has reportedly been stockpiled for use by the military rather than the population. These activities come at a time of great instability in North Korea. The economy is devastated, with widespread hunger and fuel shortages causing nightly blackouts in Pyongyang.

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A North Korean invasion of the South would be a threat to US vital interests, requiring a massive commitment of US military forces. The problem is that the US mission in Bosnia is weakening our ability to conduct such an operation. President Clinton has said the US will leave Bosnia after one year, regardless of the situation there. That must mean that Washington does not have a vital national interest in Bosnia. If it did, it would stay until the job was done, as has been the case in Korea.

Could the Pentagon support both operations at the same time? The Defense Department's Bottom-Up Review argued that the US must be able to fight two major regional contingencies simultaneously. There has been a great deal of debate over US ability to do this, and the question remains unanswered - thereby pointing out the importance of committing forces only where they are required by vital national interests.

Haiti and Bosnia are strategically significant if they occur in the absence of other conflicts. But when there are other contingencies occurring at the same time, they are a strategic liability.

America's strategic airlift capabilities are particularly stretched by foreign deployments. The Gulf war, Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti all have taken their toll. The shortest straw in the US's ability to fight two simultaneous conflicts is the command, control, and intelligence network. This is America's biggest force multiplier and provides it with its greatest advantage over potential opponents.

The US must keep its powder dry for such a real war. It should resist the temptation to assume that its military can be deployed for "feel good" missions. Rising tensions in Korea demonstrate the danger of such thinking. The possibility exists that the US will be caught moving the world's best-trained and best-equipped military to the wrong war.

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