U.S. - South Korea War Simulation Turns Really Ugly: US looks over its shoulder at North Korea

F.T. Times, FT.com

March 27, 2003

It was defeat on a scale not experienced by the US military since the Vietnam war.

One by one, the UStanks streaming down the wooded hillside were struck by enemy fire from the valley below until nearly all 50 were eliminated.

"That was ugly," said a US commander watching the debacle from a safe distance, as smoke billowed across the muddy battlefield.

Fortunately for the US, the location was not Iraq and it was not real conflict. Instead, it was a training exercise yesterday morning in the mountains of South Korea, where the US keeps 37,000 troops to defend the country against the communist North.

On this occasion, the enemy was South Korean forces, using laser beams to simulate live fire. But, if war breaks out between the US and North Korea, as some think it might, yesterday's grisly game would be for real.

Many in north-east Asia fear that once Iraq is dealt with, North Korea, a fellow member of US President George W. Bush's "axis of evil", could be the next target of Washington's drive against rogue states seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Washington insists it has no plans to invade North Korea but refuses to rule out air strikes against the state's nuclear facilities if Pyongyang starts to produce plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.

However, yesterday's drill - part of an annual exercise to test the readiness of US and South Korean forces - brought a reminder that war in Korea would be a more serious undertaking than the campaign under way in Iraq.

"Unlike Iraq, this is very complex, mountainous terrain," said Jim Coggin, brigadier general of the US second infantry division, involved in yesterday's exercise. "Precision munitions fired from high altitude or long distance would be less effective in Korea than Iraq. War here would be up close and personal and very brutal."

According to US estimates, 50,000 US servicemen and 1m South Koreans, mostly civilians, would die in the first month of conflict. The North's 1m-strong army would engage in bloody hand-to-hand combat, while its thousands of artillery systems and tanks would rain fire, including chemical weapons, across the border. In addition to human costs, the South Korean economy, Asia's third-largest, would be thrown into chaos.

For these reasons and others - including almost certain opposition to war from Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing - most analysts think a pre-emptive US strike against North Korea is unlikely.

North Korea has escalated tensions on the peninsula in recent months with a series of provocative military gestures, calculating that the US is even less likely to attack while preoccupied with Iraq. Analysts say Pyongyang's threatening behaviour is designed to extract the security guarantees and economic assistance it needs from the US to preserve its crumbling regime.

Washington has resisted North Korea's demands, insisting it will not submit to "blackmail", but the US administration is divided over how to resolve the crisis. Hawkish officials favour a hardline approach, such as economic sanctions or military action, while more dovish elements would prefer to negotiate. "The Bush administration is in a state of paralysis over North Korea," said one former US government official.

Yoon Young-kwan, South Korea's foreign minister, travelled to Washington yesterday for talks aimed at breaking the deadlock and narrowing policy differences between the US and South Korea, which advocates dialogue with the North.

Maurice Strong, the United Nations envoy to North Korea, warned earlier this week that the longer the stand-off between Pyongyang and Washington continued, the greater the chance that the crisis could spiral out of control.

Dan Bolger, a US army colonel observing yesterday's exercise 20km south of the border with North Korea, gave a frank assessment of the risk. "There's been fighting before, right here where we're standing, and there could be fighting here again," he said. "The message to North Korea is: 'If you want to test us, we're ready'.

"America has shown in Iraq it has the will to back up its words with action. They cannot assume we will not do anything."

However, US troops involved in yesterday morning's ill-fated exercise are unlikely to relish conflict. They repeated the drill in the afternoon to rectify their mistakes.

In war, there would be no second chance