In unusually blunt terms, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said decades-old U.S. ally South Korea need not fear communist North Korea as an immediate military threat.
At a news conference at this missile defense base south of Fairbanks, Rumsfeld said Sunday that North Korea is a serious threat to spread ballistic missiles and other dangerous technologies around the world. But he made plain that he sees the North's conventional military strength eroding as its economy crumbles.
"I don't see them, frankly, as an immediate military threat to South Korea," he said.
His comment could be interpreted as an effort to build a rhetorical case for further reductions in U.S. troop levels in South Korea, already scheduled to be cut from 32,500 to 20,000 over the next few years. U.S. troops also are moving farther away from the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea, and Rumsfeld has sought to use Korea-based troops in missions outside Asia.
The South Korean government fears a too-rapid reduction in U.S. military support, which it has relied on for more than half a century since the Korean War ended in a cease-fire instead of a peace treaty.
Rumsfeld was at Fort Greely for his first look at the interceptor missiles that are poised in underground silos here as part of a system designed mainly to defend against a potential North Korean missile attack. He climbed down into one silo and got briefings on how the system is being improved.
Ten interceptors are emplaced in silos at Greely and an 11th was scheduled to be installed Monday.
Rumsfeld often accuses North Korea of posing a threat with missiles capable of reaching Japan and possibly parts of the United States. But he has rarely offered such a skeptical assessment of the North's overall military power.
"I think the real threat that North Korea poses in the immediate future is more one of proliferation than a danger to South Korea," he said, adding that the North Koreans for years have sold ballistic missile technologies to Iran and unspecified other countries — "mostly terrorist countries."
To illustrate his point about North Korea's waning conventional military strength, Rumsfeld said its air force pilots fly fewer than 50 training hours a year because of a lack of resources. That compares with more than 200 training hours in the air each year by U.S. military pilots.
"That makes a difference," he said, "if you're flying less than 50 compared to a couple of hundred or 300. And that's undoubtedly true of other aspects of their military. So I don't see them, frankly, as an immediate military threat to South Korea. I think South Korea has an awful lot of capability, and it's increasing."
No 'major power sponsor'
Rumsfeld added that North Korea no longer has a "major power sponsor" like it did during the Korean War, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops came to the North's aid after American troops overtook Seoul, the South Korean capital, and reached the Yalu River on China's border in October 1950.
The Soviet Union also played a military role — less overt than China's — in support of the North in the Korean War.
Today, Rumsfeld said, both China and Russia are "a little standoffish" with North Korea. "And that changes the equation from that standpoint."
As an example of that loss of support, South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Saturday that China has reduced "a significant amount" of its oil supplies to North Korea since its July missile launches.
Rumsfeld said Sunday that those missile test launches underscore the North's determination to "continue to improve their capability and to threaten and attempt to blackmail other people."