WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has been in Japan, China and South Korea seeking a synchronized strategy to persuade North Korea to give up its aspirations for a nuclear arsenal even as President Bush has sought to shove that issue off the radar screen until the conflict with Iraq has been settled.
The North Koreans, however, have become increasingly belligerent. On Feb. 20, Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency thundered that the confrontation "is so alarming that a nuclear war may break out at any moment." And they launched a test missile Monday.
That bluster about nuclear war is absurd if for no other reason than that North Korea has at most two nuclear warheads against what the National Resources Defense Council estimates at 6,200 deployed by the United States. Indeed, U.S. military officers say they are far more worried about North Korea's armed forces along the demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula.
In particular, they point to North Korea's special operations forces (SOF), or commandos, which they estimate number 100,000 to 120,000 soldiers, up from 70,000 only a few years ago. These elite troops are organized into 23 brigades and 18 smaller independent battalions.
Consequently, U.S. and South Korean planners have revised the operational plan that will be executed if war breaks out, assigning a higher priority to defeating the North Korean SOF much earlier than anticipated in earlier plans.
The North Korean SOF mission, say those with access to intelligence reports, would be to open a second front in the rear of South Korean and U.S. forces. They would seek to cut communication lines, assault command posts, assassinate senior South Korean and U.S. officers and kidnap South Korean political leaders.
The SOF would infiltrate South Korea by sea, land and air. Since 86 percent of South Korea's border is coastline sprinkled with hundreds of rocky islets, it would be conducive to infiltration by North Korean mini-submarines, high-speed boats and air-cushioned amphibious craft.
The special operations forces would also try to come through about 20 tunnels dug under the DMZ in the last 30 years and overland through the sparsely populated and mountainous reaches in the east. By air, the North Koreans would parachute from old Russian transport planes that fly low and slowly to avoid detection by radar.
In response, the new Operations Plan 5027-02 calls for counterstrikes: hitting North Korean SOF bases before the commandos slip into South Korea, attacking those bases with U.S. and South Korean SOFs and sinking North Korean ships before they could land commandos. The plan also calls for added protection of U.S. and South Korean bases.
Late last year, a team from the U.S. 353rd Special Operations Group from Okinawa, Japan, trained with its counterparts in South Korea's Special Warfare Command. It marked the first time that such training had taken place, according to a 353rd statement.
Intelligence officers, operational planners and flight crews went over aircraft configurations, flight routes, refueling methods and ground maneuvers. Maj. Bae Gyung-Guen said: "Korea's Special Warfare Command wants to make sure that there are no misunderstandings between the air crews and jumpers."
About the same time, senior officers at the U.S. air base in Osan, about 40 miles south of Seoul, worried most "about enemy special forces taking out the base," said the base newspaper. They figured it would take 1,000 security troops to defend the base's six-mile perimeter, but they had only 400. Thus they formed the base's cooks, post office clerks and 500 other airmen into a reserve.
Operations Plan 5027, revised every two years, is drawn up jointly by South Korean and U.S. officers to set the strategy for defending South Korea. It details the positions of almost all targets in North Korea and assigns units and weapons to attack each one.
In 5027-98 are provisions for a pre-emptive attack on North Korea in which the forces need only to receive the order to go. Military officers said those provisions are still in effect. This plan predates President Bush's controversial doctrine governing such strikes, the president's critics contending that pre-emptive strikes have not been part of the American way of war.
That overlooks the U.S. invasions of the Caribbean island nation of Grenada in 1983 to dispose of a Cuban-backed junta. In 1986, the United States mounted a punitive air strike against Libya to deter further Libyan terrorism. And the United States invaded Panama in 1989 to unseat its dictator, Manuel Noriega.
In comparison, 5027-98 states that the United States and South Korea will retaliate against a North Korean invasion by striking north of the DMZ, driving on to Pyongyang and destroying the regime of the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il.
The North Koreans have seen those invasions and know generally the provisions of 5027, which is among the reasons they have been seeking - desperately - a nonaggression pact with the United States.
Richard Halloran, an author and free-lance journalist, is a specialist in U.S. military affairs and East Asia. He lives in Honolulu.