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North Korea builds up special forces

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SEOUL >> North Korea has faster, more powerful tanks prowling the world’s most heavily armed border and 200,000 special forces poised to carry out assassinations and cause havoc in South Korea, a major military review said Thursday.

Seoul’s Defense Ministry report, released every two years, signals that the North’s military threat has expanded. It comes as President Lee Myung-bak’s administration scrambles to respond to criticism that it was unprepared for a Nov. 23 North Korean artillery attack on a front-line island that killed four people.

That attack, along with an alleged North Korean torpedoing of a warship in March, has prompted South Korea to define the North in the defense document as its “enemy,” a stronger description — and one that will likely be noticed by Pyongyang — than in 2008, when the North was only called a “direct and serious threat.”

The new document says the North intends to rely on its nuclear program, special forces, long-range artillery, submarines and cyber warfare forces as a counterweight to South Korea’s high-tech conventional military.

North Korea has 200,000 special operations forces, the report says, an increase from 180,000 in the ministry’s last assessment in 2008. Those forces are aimed at carrying out assassinations and infiltrating and disrupting key facilities in South Korea, it said.

The North’s army deploys many of its 13,600 long-range artillery guns along the Demilitarized Zone, ready to launch surprise artillery barrages on Seoul and its adjacent areas, the document said. Seoul is only about 30 miles (50 kilometers) away from the border.

The country also has developed a new kind of battle tank with better firepower and mobility than previous ones, and the modern tanks have been deployed near the border, it said.

The North’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Il has made a priority of trying to build up military power superior to the South’s, and its forces “are posing a serious threat to South Korea’s military,” the document said.

However, despite the North’s asymmetrical forces, analysts say there is little likelihood that North Korea would launch an all-out war against South Korea, whose military is bolstered by 28,500 American troops in the country. The U.S. has repeatedly promised to keep South Korea under its nuclear umbrella.

The two Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Tension between the rivals sharply rose in the wake of March’s deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on Pyongyang and last month’s artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island. The ship sinking killed forty-six South Korean sailors. The North has denied involvement.

South Korean defense documents stopped calling North Korea “the main enemy” — a constant subject of North Korean criticism — in 2004 amid then-warming ties.

Defense Ministry officials say this year’s paper didn’t return to the “main enemy” reference because neighboring countries might wonder who South Korea’s other enemies are.

Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said South Korea, in deciding what to label the North, had to think about recent North Korean attacks, but also about the possibility that ties with Pyongyang could improve.

Kim said a more confrontational relationship between the Koreas “could be a burden” that gets in the way of efforts to resume stalled disarmament talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

“South Korea has to think about its relations with North Korea on a long-term perspective,” he said.

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