N Korea 'boosting special forces'


South Korean protesters denounce the government's policy over North Korea in Seoul (AP)

North Korea has faster, more powerful tanks prowling the world’s most heavily armed border and 200,000 special forces poised to carry out assassinations and cause havoc in South Korea, a major military review has said.

Seoul’s Defence Ministry report, released every two years, signals that the North’s military threat has expanded. It comes as President Lee Myung-bak’s administration scrambles to respond to criticism that it was unprepared for a November 23 North Korean artillery attack on a front-line island that killed four people.

That attack, along with an alleged North Korean torpedoing of a warship in March, has prompted South Korea to define the North in the defence document as its “enemy”, a stronger description than in 2008 when the North was only called a “direct and serious threat”.

South Korean defence documents stopped referring to North Korea as “the main enemy” – a constant subject of North Korean criticism – in 2004 amid then-warming ties. The North’s state media reacted angrily to the new reference, calling it a “grave provocation” that could trigger war.

The new document says the North intends to rely on its nuclear programme, special forces, long-range artillery, submarines and cyber warfare forces as a counterweight to South Korea’s high-tech conventional military. North Korea has 200,000 special operations forces, the report says, an increase from 180,000 in the ministry’s last assessment in 2008. Those forces are aimed at carrying out assassinations and infiltrating and disrupting key facilities in South Korea, it said.

The North’s army deploys many of its 13,600 long-range artillery guns along the Demilitarised Zone, ready to launch surprise artillery barrages on Seoul and its adjacent areas, according to the document. The country also has developed a new kind of battle tank with better firepower and mobility than previous ones, and the modern tanks have been deployed near the border, it said.

The North’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Il has made a priority of trying to build military power superior to the South’s, and its forces “are posing a serious threat to South Korea’s military”, the document said.

However, despite the North’s asymmetrical forces, analysts say there is little likelihood that North Korea would launch an all-out war against South Korea, whose military is bolstered by 28,500 American troops in the country. The US has repeatedly promised to keep South Korea under its nuclear umbrella.

The document reconfirmed that the US will deploy an additional 690,000 troops, 160 navy ships and 2,000 military aircraft in the event of a war on the peninsula. South Korea has about 650,000 troops of its own, while the North is thought to have 1.2 million soldiers.

The two Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme involve the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia, but have been on hold for nearly two years.

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