SEOUL — The U.S. faces a “dangerously uncertain period” on the Korean peninsula following the death of Kim Jong Il with “the possibility of unexpected events leading to miscalculation,” the top U.S. military commander for South Korea said Wednesday.
“Currently, the greatest threat remains instability in North Korea or a provocation that culminates in a broader conflict which could, at its extreme, result in the use of weapons of mass destruction,” U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. James D. Thurman told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee this week.
Appearing before Congress to testify about the security situation on the peninsula, both Thurman and Dr. Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs, said the North has shown a willingness to use deadly military force.
“The potential for a North Korean act of provocation in 2012 remains a major concern,” Lavoy said.
Their statements, taken from transcripts of the hearing, come as North Korea prepares for a satellite launch next month that it claims is for peaceful purposes, though the U.S. says the launch is a cover to test long-range missiles.
Thurman said the North’s ability to attack the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, home to 50,000 private American citizens, is growing, while the North’s arsenal of weapons — from ballistic missiles to chemical and biological weapons — continues to threaten U.S. interests in the region.
The North’s 60,000 special operations forces, the largest in the world, also remain a threat.
“Last year’s attempted infiltration of an assassination team into the ROK (Republic of Korea) highlights the nature of this threat and North Korea’s willingness to use it,” he said in an apparent reference to a possible attempt by the North last year to assassinate defector and activist Park Sang Hak. The plot was reported by South Korean media last summer, though several South Korean military spokesmen on Thursday dismissed those stories as speculation.
The communist nation also has expanded its cyber warfare capabilities in the past year, to the point that it now has a network of sophisticated computer hackers, Thurman said.
“Such attacks are ideal for North Korea, providing the regime a means to attack ROK and US interests without attribution, and have been increasingly employed against a variety of targets including military, governmental, educational and commercial institutions,” he said.
Echoing comments made in recent months by North Korean analysts, Thurman said the transition to power from Kim Jong Il to his son, Kim Jong Un, appears to be proceeding smoothly, with significant economic and political support from China.
The regime is “making a concerted effort to capitalize on Kim Jong Un’s remarkable resemblance to his late grandfather, Kim Il Sung,” Thurman said. Kim Il Sung ruled the communist nation for more than four decades and is still revered by many North Koreans.
“State-controlled media images have shown Kim Jong Un with swept-back hair and dressed in Maoist suits very similar to those popularized by Kim Il Sung — a carefully stage-managed effort to help the relatively inexperienced Kim Jong Un garner the same adulation the populace had bestowed upon his grandfather,” Thurman said.
Moving away from North Korea, Thurman told Congress that the tour normalization program — increasing the number of accompanied tours in South Korea — for U.S. troops will not be expanding at this time.
“The Department is not able to afford tour normalization at this time, and I am content to remain at the currently authorized 4,645 command-sponsored families,” he said. “I am convinced, however, that a change in personnel policies will improve the readiness of USFK by reducing turbulence. We are working with the Department of Defense to examine how individual tour length extensions and unit rotations could help address this readiness issue.”
USFK spokeswoman Jennifer Buschick said Thurman was referring to the turnover of 600 to 700 troops each month, which hinders unit stability.
U.S. troops have typically been stationed in South Korea on one-year unaccompanied tours, but Thurman’s predecessor, now-retired Gen. Walter Sharp, announced plans in 2008 to gradually expand the number of command sponsorships. Under that plan, approximately half of USFK’s 28,500 troops would be stationed in South Korea with their families on two- or three-year tours.
The high demand of the program and the cost of expanding infrastructure to accommodate families forced the military to cap the program in 2010.
Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.