U.S. commander denies requesting reinforcements

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea -- The top U.S. military commander in South Korea said Tuesday he has not requested reinforcements, despite a deepening crisis over North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons development.

Gen. Leon J. LaPorte made his statement after U.S. officials in Washington said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is considering sending an aircraft carrier to the waters off the Korean Peninsula and adding bombers in Guam.

The moves are intended to deter the North from provocations during any U.S. war with Iraq, the Pentagon officials said.

In Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said he had no doubt the United States and North Korea will open a dialogue.

"Of course we're going to have direct talks with the North Koreans," Armitage told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said the United States would only deepen the tension with North Korea by beefing up its military might in the region, where it already has a powerful presence. Russia has close ties with North Korea.

North Korea responded sharply to the reported U.S. moves. "In an attempt to crush us to death, the U.S. military is scheming to beef up forces in Japan and South Korea," said the North's Central Radio, monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

LaPorte's statement indicated that there would no immediate change in his troop level, which currently stands at 37,000.

"We did not request additional forces," LaPorte said in response to a question from South Korean media. "If we do, we will consult with the South Korean Ministry of National Defense and then refer to the Pacific Command."

LaPorte did not respond to U.S. media reports that the Pentagon has decided to dispatch additional B-1 bombers and F-16 fighter jets to the western Pacific in a show of force against North Korea.

"We at U.S.-South Korea Combined Forces Command continually monitor all situations on the peninsula and maintain a readiness level to ensure deterrence and preserve the peace of the Korean Peninsula," he said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reviewed a naval unit at an undisclosed location Monday and was greatly satisfied with its combat readiness, the North's state-run KCNA news agency said.

Kim commended the sailors, calling them "invincible fighters" armed with "the spirit of becoming human bombs and the spirit of blowing oneself up as their invariable faith," it said.

North Korea's media routinely churn out anti-U.S. invective but it has become more frequent and intense since the nuclear dispute erupted in October, when U.S. officials said the North had admitted having a nuclear program in violation of a 1994 pact with Washington.

As punishment, the United States and its allies suspended oil shipments to North Korea in December. The North then took steps to restart another nuclear program, expelled U.N. monitors and withdrew from a global nuclear arms control treaty.

North Korea has accused Washington of escalating the standoff as a pretext for an invasion. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush still believes the standoff can be resolved peacefully.

While trying to resolve the nuclear dispute through diplomacy, the United States wants to bring the issue before the U.N. Security Council, which could consider sanctions against the North.

In Vienna, the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that its 35-nation board of governors will meet Feb. 12 to discuss the nuclear standoff.

The meeting could refer the dispute to the Security Council. But Russia, which like the United States has a seat on the board, came out against such a step Tuesday.

"As before, we still believe that the possibility for diplomatic dialogue between the interested sides is not exhausted," Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Yakovenko as saying.

Submitting the issue to the council "now would be counterproductive," he said.

In a move intended to limit damage to inter-Korean ties, South Korean state prosecutors decided Monday to shelve an investigation into an alleged payoff scandal surrounding an inter-Korean summit in 2000 -- a decision that drew angry protests from opposition politicians.

The main opposition Grand National Party introduced a bill in the National Assembly on Tuesday to appoint an independent counsel to investigate opposition claims that money -- possibly from South Korea's government -- was given to the North ahead of the summit as payment for the historic talks.

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