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South Korea hosts war games as debate grows over North's nuclear arsenal

The US and South Korean deployment of new vehicles and robots for defense against nuclear weaponry reflects fears that North Korea, in a leadership struggle and desperate for food, might be tempted to use them.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / March 3, 2011

A U.S. soldier from the 2nd Infantry Division wearing a gas mask and anti-chemical gear participates during a joint military drill between U.S. and South Korea for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear detection and response capabilities at U.S. military base, Camp Casey in Dongducheon, north of Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, March 3.

Lee Jin-man/AP

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Camp Casey, South Korea

Brig. Gen. Charles Taylor is sure of one thing as he stands beside the latest US Army reconnaissance vehicle for sniffing out evidence of the chemical, biological, nuclear, or radiological weapons that North Korea has developed since the Korean War.

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“The North Koreans have threatened to use weapons of mass destruction,” says General Taylor, assistant commander of the US Army’s second infantry division. “We are preparing for a wide range of capabilities.”

Those remarks set the tone for 10 days of war games involving nearly 13,000 American and 200,000 South Korean troops and another month of exercises, all of which wind down at the end of April. The deployment of new vehicles, robots, and other devices for defense against the most fearsome weaponry in the North’s arsenal reflects the view that North Korea, in a leadership struggle and desperate for food and other supplies, might be tempted to use them in an unanticipated showdown.

That show of concern comes at a timely moment. Debate here has been heating up over how to deal with North Korean threats – and the widespread sense that North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons even if six-party talks resume on getting the North to abandon them.

The debate on how to deal with North Korean threats of nuclear warfare reached a crescendo in the National Assembly, the media, and numerous seminars after Gary Samore, White House coordinator for arms control and proliferation, was quoted as saying the Obama administration would consider basing nuclear weapons here if South Korea asked for them.

The Blue House, the center of presidential power here, almost immediately said the government was not thinking of asking for them, and Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, who is visiting here this week, said the US had “no intention to deploy US tactical or other nuclear weapons in South Korea.”

Those remarks, though, only fueled the ongoing debate over whether South Korea should have its own nuclear stockpile. Some conservatives are saying South Korea, a signatory of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, from which North Korea has withdrawn, should forget about a denuclearization agreement reached with North Korea 20 years ago, since the North has been violating it for years.

“Voices for nuclear weapons in South Korea are getting louder and louder,” says Yoo Se-hee, chairman of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights. “The US and China haven’t been able to solve this problem.”

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