WASHINGTON -- The nation's top military leader suggested yesterday that U.S. and South Korean troops may be unable to defend Seoul against the first wave of a North Korean attack, but he asserted that any invading forces would ultimately be defeated.
Army Gen. John Shalikashvili said an attack was not imminent, despite rising tensions over international access to North Korea's nuclear facilities and what he called "the unpredictability of the regime."
The four-star general, speaking at his first Pentagon news conference since becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October, emphasized that an invasion appeared no more likely now than several months ago.
"I don't want to leave . . . the impression that something has changed in the past month or two or three that somehow makes it likely that North Korea is engaged in some kind of preparation for attack," said General Shalikashvili, who was unusually direct in answering reporters' questions and appeared comfortable in his new role.
The Clinton administration has been trying to break the deadlock over the inspection of North Korea's nuclear installations by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Officials in Washington have offered a swap of concessions to win a commitment from Pyongyang on inspections and a resumption of talks with South Korea on achieving a nuclear-free peninsula.
President Clinton and Defense Secretary Les Aspin have tried to counter talk of an escalating crisis, despite some hints within the administration of growing pessimism over the standoff.
They also have strictly avoided saber rattling and open discussions of U.S. military options for compelling Pyongyang's compliance or for responding to any aggression.
General Shalikashvili, who is Mr. Clinton's principal military adviser, assumed the same public posture, saying at one point that it was "very dangerous to speculate" about the likelihood of a North Korean invasion of the south.
But he did suggest that Seoul, the South Korean capital, which is 20 miles from the border, might be overrun if one did occur.
Asked if U.S. and South Korean forces could stop an invasion force outside the city, he said, "I hope that we can do so. . . . We have every intention to try to do so."
Earlier this month, Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff, was the first member of the Joint Chiefs to raise doubts about defending Seoul and its 10 million inhabitants.
He told reporters that U.S.-led forces could defeat North Koreans in an air war but might not be able to repel an invasion of Seoul by ground forces fast enough.
About 35,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, including an Army infantry division and two fighter wings.
Another 46,800 U.S. military personnel are in Japan, including a Marine expeditionary force and the 7th Fleet.
South Korea has an active-duty force of about 655,000 troops.
North Korea's armed forces have 1.03 million members, about 70 percent of them stationed between Pyongyang, the capital, and the demilitarized zone separating the two countries.
General Shalikashvili showed no hesitation in asserting that any North Korean aggression would fail.
"As far as our confidence to stop a North Korean attack into the South, I'm very, very confident," he said.
He said that China, which favors a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, is unlikely to align itself militarily with the Communist North as it did during the Korean War 40 years ago.
"The conditions are totally different," General Shalikashvili said.
Even "the more pessimistic" war scenarios -- those indicating heavy U.S. military and Korean civilian casualties and at least four months of difficult fighting -- result in North Korea falling "far short of . . . reaching their war objectives," he said.
On other topics, General Shalikashvili told reporters:
* He will fly to Somalia Saturday to review the plans for withdrawing the remaining 8,000 U.S. troops there by March 31.
As many as 300 logistics specialists may stay behind to support the United Nations force there, but the general said he prefers "the number be smaller than larger."
* U.S. military aircraft are preparing to increase air drops of food and supplies throughout Bosnia and flights into Sarajevo and possibly Tuzla to help "get folks through the winter."
He reiterated the administration's view that Washington cannot impose a peace agreement on the warring factions but would be prepared to send troops to enforce a viable settlement.