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.

Lee Jin-man/AP
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.

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.

“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.”

Mr. Yoo believes, however, that “it’s rather premature to accept that argument” – and now is not the time for South Korea to have its own nuclear weapons.

“The US and China should press further for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons,” he says. “Otherwise the nuclear arguments of South Korea will get a bigger voice.”

The topic inspires bitter controversy. “Many people say we must have nuclear weapons,” says Choi Young-jae, policy commissioner of the National Unification Advisory Council, another nongovernmental organization, “but I think that issue is not so easy.”

Japan and Taiwan might also become nuclear powers, he notes, while many countries, including South Korea’s ally, the US, would strongly object. At the same time, he says, South Korean liberals and leftists, already deeply critical of the country’s conservative government, would protest, perhaps vehemently.

Back at the US base

For the time being, Taylor, in charge of maneuvers at this historic base midway between Seoul and the demilitarized zone that’s divided the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War, places the array of weaponry on display for a stream of visitors in a broad context. “The threat of weapons of mass destruction is global,” he says. “The threat is constantly evolving, and we are constantly evolving our capabilities.”

South Korea’s Defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, has announced plans to deploy helicopters on islands near North Korean territory and to repeat large-scale exercises in the area – an act of defiance that North Korea promises to counter with more attacks. US and South Korean ground forces, moreover, are planning live-fire exercises next week on training grounds within earshot of the North Koreans.

Nothing more seriously dramatizes concerns about North Korea’s ultimate intentions, however, than deployment of a range of devices for defense against weapons of mass destruction that the North has tested but never used in warfare.

The Army shipped four huge Stryker reconnaissance vehicles, including sensors for sniffing out just about every imaginable “nuclear, chemical, and biological contamination” and relaying warning messages, to join the one that is already here. For the next week or so they’ll be practicing with South Korean vehicles in rough terrain south of the demilitarized zone.

While playing war games here at Camp Casey, talk of debate seems remote. “Don’t ask us about North Korea,” says an officer, standing beside General Taylor. “We can’t answer those questions.” All Taylor will say when pressed is, “My soldiers are the experts in their fields, training to deter aggression against all kinds of threats” – in this instance, the worst-case scenario of North Korea actually using the deadliest weapons it’s got.

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