North Korea last month sparked global fears with renewed testing of hypersonic projectiles and ballistic missiles capable of targeting American cities, but a former top US military official in the region warns that Pyongyang’s less flashy, conventional forces also pose an urgent threat to South Korea that Washington must not ignore.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Bernard Champoux, a former chief of staff of US troops in South Korea, emphasized during a panel discussion this week that North Korea’s conventional forces near the demilitarized zone dividing the Korean peninsula still pose a massive threat to millions living in and around the South Korean capital of Seoul.
“A lot of direct fire weapons could cause catastrophic casualties, because [Seoul’s] size, proximity and population density to North Korea,” Mr. Champoux told “The Washington Brief,” a virtual, monthly event series hosted by The Washington Times Foundation.
The former general stressed that the damage from a North Korean attack has been amplified by Seoul’s dramatic population and economic growth. The city had just more than a million residents when the Korean War was frozen by an early-1950s armistice. It has since expanded in all directions, including northward toward the DMZ, to a metropolitan area of nearly 27 million people.
“The threat is not only North Korea ICBMs, but also the presence and closeness of a very large [North Korean] army and its conventional weapons staring into Seoul’s backyard,” he said. “The alliance … could not respond in a time of crisis, without the US force presence on the Korean peninsula.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has used a battery of missile firings to remind the world of the threat he poses and give President Biden, who has tried to keep the Korean problem on the back burner in his first year in office, a fresh foreign policy headache to address.
Pyongyang on Sunday test-fired what experts are calling the most powerful missile since Mr. Biden took office more than a year ago. Sunday’s launch followed two recent tests that analysts have described as “hypersonic” missiles by North Korea, and was the seventh launch in January after a period of quiet and diplomatic drift as the Biden administration has settled into office.
Others who spoke during Tuesday’s “Washington Brief” event emphasized that the Kim regime has continued developing ICBM and nuclear capabilities in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, all while keeping up North Korea’s conventional forces that directly threaten South Korea.
The Washington Brief’s regular panel includes former CIA official and longtime US diplomatic adviser Joseph DeTrani; Alexandre Mansourov, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies; and former US Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill, who moderates the monthly event series and has been nominated by Mr. Biden to be the next ambassador to Serbia.
“Que [North Korea] could do to Seoul within a period of a few hours, even shorter than a few hours, could be horrific,” said Mr. DeTrani.
However, the former CIA official stressed that Pyongyang’s advanced weapons program and testing are particularly destabilizing for the US and the region. Mr. Kim, he said, is moving toward ending an informal moratorium on ICBM and nuclear weapons tests that the North Korean leader has had in place since his 2018 Singapore summit with former President Donald Trump. The North’s more recent development of “hypersonics” is particularly disturbing, Mr. DeTrani said.
“This is a capability, a missile, that could prove to be very challenging for any missile defense system, whether it’s [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system] THAAD or Patriot Missiles,” he said, in reference to missile defense batteries US forces have positioned in the region.
“North Korea is moving very, very quickly into these areas,” said Mr. DeTrani, expressing frustration that China and Russia are not pressing Pyongyang more forcefully to pull back.
“My personal sense is they will be moving toward an ICBM launch and another nuclear test and we will go to the UN Security Council for additional sanctions, and there will be no unanimity because I think China and Russia will say, ‘No, we’ re not there,’” he said, adding that the US, South Korea and Japan should be pushing for a five-way meeting with China and Russia present to discuss danger posed to all by the North Korean provocations.
“We need to come together with some sort of unanimity because I don’t think anybody wants to see, if you will, greater escalation on the Korean peninsula,” Mr. DeTrani said.
Mr. Champoux, meanwhile, called on US officials to publicly renounce the idea of removing American forces from South Korea, a prospect Mr. Trump floated as he pressed South Korea to pay more of the cost of housing the US troops and hinted that their presence could be a bargaining chip in negotiations with the North.
“I just don’t think we should barter the US presence on the peninsula,” said Mr. Champoux. “… A capable alliance, with competent military leadership, a trained and ready, combined US[-South Korean] force, a credible extended deterrent, and a prepared US-joint force on the peninsula to rapidly meet crisis timelines, are essential to keeping the [North Korea] at bay.”
He added that US forces should be prepared to stay in South Korea until the day that North and South are reunited. “In my humble opinion,” the former general said, “the perfect time to start considering the withdrawal of US forces from the Korean peninsula is after reunification and not a minute before.”
• David R. Sands contributed to this report.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism