As the US prepares to reduce and redeploy troops that have long guarded the DMZ in South Korea, it is also sending a huge array of state-of-the-art military equipment onto a peninsula confronting a nuclear crisis.
Along with a new Pentagon study of tactical nuclear weapons that would penetrate the deep tunnels and entrenched artillery positions of North Korea's military, the $11-billion infusion of weaponry has raised concerns in Seoul that Kim Jong Il, the North's isolated leader, will interpret the buildup as a prelude to war or "regime change."
The new materiel includes precision-guided rockets, Patriot missile-defense units, attack helicopters, and a rotating strike force team.
"This is a great deal of new military equipment being sent to South Korea," says Seongho Sheen, a research fellow with the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "Although the US government has repeatedly said it has no intention of attacking, from the North Korean perspective it looks like the US is preparing for war."
Deploying small nuclear weapons to the South, even if approved, is four years away, experts note. The Pentagon got a congressional nod in May to study the so-called nuclear "bunker busters" - causing a stir in Seoul.
Of more immediate notice is what US officials term an "enhancement" of capability and weaponry now under way in the South. The buildup, first tipped by Gen. Leon LaPorte in a classified talk last month, is part of a restructuring of US forces in Korea. This plan stems from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's push for a more flexible and fast-moving US military. US forces have discussed such changes for 10 years.
The US is known to want a diplomatic answer to the crisis with the North, and is pushing regional allies, especially China, to pressure Kim. Still, the timing and backdrop of this buildup, and its potential for being misread in the North, concerns some South Korean officials and US and Japanese analysts.
"When you are at an impasse, as we are with the North, attempts to break the status quo can look provocative," says Haksoon Paik of the Sejong Institute outside Seoul. "New high-tech weapons massed in the South could be destabilizing."
Enhancement comes at a sensitive moment: Pyongyang is openly declaring nuclear status. The South has a newly elected leader. There are disagreements and some confusion in the public mind over how to conduct relations with both sibling North Korea and ally Uncle Sam.
In the midst of this, the Pentagon said this spring it will redeploy troops that have guarded the DMZ for 50-plus years. The news caused deep jitters in Seoul, partly assuaged by the recent visit of assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Some worry that, despite US assurances, the Americans may either be leaving forward positions to prepare a military option against Kim's nuclear program, or preparing South Korea to fend for itself in a sort of Koreanization program.
US military planners argue that the new weaponry shows a reasonable commitment to defend the South - and is an incentive for Kim to forgo military moves and negotiate.
"They [North Korea] thinks everything is provocative, when it suits their purpose," says a US military official in Seoul. "Last winter, we quietly held military-training exercises, which they sought to interpret as a prelude to war. We train every year. But this time they used it as an excuse to call off talks. We can't make decisions based on what Kim may or may not think."
The breakdown of the $11 billion is not yet clear, and US military officials say it is too early to reveal where the weapons will go. The package includes 16 new Pac-3 Patriot antimissile systems, at least two squadrons of Longbow AH-64D Apache helicopters, refitted "smart" bombs, and several hundred new tanks and fighting vehicles for a "striker force" that would rotate in and out of Korea. Costs may also include landing strips and "Korean contingency" forces based elsewhere.
Despite recent anti-American sentiments and protests in Seoul against US forces, most Koreans regard GIs as an essential "tripwire" along the DMZ. Liberals and even conservatives, like the new ambassador to the US, Han Sung Joo, argue troops should be redeployed, and the status quo changed, only after settlement of the nuclear crisis.
Under the Pentagon plan, US troops will move from some two dozen bases along the DMZ to two main "hubs" south of the Han River. Forces can move rapidly up and down the DMZ, and are further removed from the local population.
Yet what seems a mere tactical change in the US resonates deeper in the Korean context. "To take that tripwire away without resolving the conflict between North Korea and the US is, in the minds of South Koreans, an abrogation of responsibility taken by the US in 1953 to terminate the conflict without reunifying the Peninsula," says Lt. Col. Carl Baker of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
Defense Department plans for a tactical nuclear deterrent have been in the air for more than a year. In spring 2002, a Department of Defense "Nuclear Posture Review" was leaked - a report that contemplated use of small nuclear weapons for penetrating into deep bunkers or tunnels. The review named North Korea as a prime target. The North Army has tunneled prolifically for years; four tunnels from the North under the DMZ have been found. South Korean intelligence suspects an entire mountain in the North may be hollowed out.
A US nuclear deterrent would be sold as a way to "preempt" the huge array of artillery tubes now aimed at Seoul. The capital of the South is regarded as a "hostage" of these weapons, and estimates range from 60,000 to 500,000 casualties in the first hours of any all-out war between the Koreas.
At a recent panel at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, a military analyst just back from Iraq said "the lesson" of that war is that conventional artillery such as Kim's is no longer effective. The ability of US forces to target artillery has changed tactics. "It's easy to take artillery tubes off the table. One of the most lethal places to be is in an artillery position. You may live for one shot; you may not live for two," said David Kay of the Potomac Institute.
Other analysts feel there are no such guarantees in the messy exercise of war.