Leaders confident U.S. troops in Pacific can meet any threat
March 15, 2003
ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. military has enough forces in place in South Korea and throughout the Pacific Rim to deal with any potential threat from North Korea, the two senior military leaders who share responsibility for Asian operations said Thursday.
“I am better postured today in the West Pacific than I was a year ago,” Adm. Thomas Fargo, the commander of American forces in the Pacific, told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a morning hearing on Capitol Hill.
Fargo was joined by Army Gen. Leon LaPorte, commander of allied forces in South Korea, who said “I am also confident” that there are enough U.S. troops in the region to handle aggressive moves by Pyongyang.
LaPorte said that he has “increased intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, so we have a good indicator, a warning” if North Korea escalates moves against the United States into outright war.
The two leaders’ testimony came as tensions between the United States and Korea ratcheted up another notch Wednesday, when a senior State Department official told a Congressional committee that North Korea was months, not years, away from producing highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
That news follows a series of escalating problems with Pyong- yang, which has restarted a nuclear reactor that could produce plutonium for nuclear weapons; conducted its first missile launch in three years just as Secretary of State Colin Powell visited South Korea on Feb. 25; and, 10 days ago, intercepted an Air Force reconnaissance plane in international airspace.
“It’s obvious we’ve got a crisis in North Korea,” armed services committee member Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Thursday.
LaPorte told the committee that the enriched uranium program “is a serious threat,” but declined in an unclassified forum to offer his estimate of how quickly North Korea could begin producing the substance.
Meanwhile, Fargo said that U.S. reconnaissance flights have, in fact, resumed off North Korea, although he would not confirm reports that Pentagon officials have decided not to use fighter jets to escort and protect the unarmed spy aircraft for fear of provoking North Korean leaders.
“Obviously, we took a very close look” at the threat, Fargo said, “and we have put in place prudent measures” to protect the aircraft.
LaPorte said the Army is providing some assets to protect the reconnaissance planes, as well, “Which implies a full range of things we can do.”
The committee chairman, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said that the militaries of the North Korea and the United States “may want to establish a system of communications” to avoid misunderstandings between pilots that could trigger a full-scale military conflict.
“The relationship between [the United States and North Korea] is very strained at the moment, and a precipitous act” by a servicemember from either side, “intended or not, could exacerbate the situation,” Warner said.
While outright war with North Korea doesn’t appear imminent, La Porte said, there is no doubt that “North Korea has, for the past 10 to 12 years, adapted” to U.S. military tactics and procedures in preparation for a major conflict.
The Army leader mentioned that Pyongyang now uses frequency-hopping radios in order to keep its military communications secure; fiber optic connections between military units, which are difficult to destroy by air; and “a tremendous number of underground facilities” to protect senior leaders in wartime.