[EXCERPTS] DoD News Briefing
Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD(PA) Tuesday, April 29, 1997 - 3 p.m
Q: About the famine in North Korea, there are reports that the
situation is worsening. I was wondering if you could tell me the
Pentagon's assessment on how much of a threat this causes to
the peninsula and overall security along the peninsula.
A: I think you can look at the food shortages in North Korea on
several levels. The first, of course, is humanitarian. We have
reports from non-government organizations, from the news
media, from others, of widespread starvation or famine in North
Korea. I can give you a few facts.
Generally, food is distributed by the central government to about
65 percent of the population in North Korea. The military has its
own distribution system, collective farmers have a separate
distribution system, but in general, about 65 percent of the
population receives a ration from the central government. That
ration has been decreased dramatically over the last couple of
There have been a number of problems with the North Korean
agricultural program. We think that the main problem is
widespread mismanagement over a long period of time -- lack
of fertilization, lack of proper crop rotation, exhaustion of the
land, etc. In addition, there have been floods and natural
disasters which have further curbed food production.
The rations now are quite low. They probably constitute about
15 to 20 percent of what we would consider here, what our
Department of Agriculture would consider the minimum daily
caloric requirement. In addition, many citizens of North Korea
are going out and foraging for food. In other words, they get a
ration. Some of those rations are now coming from local
governments or from collectives themselves rather than from the
central government. There seems to have been some change in
the distribution setup . But they get their ration, and then in
addition, they're going out and foraging on their own.
If you take their ration on the one hand and what they're able to
get through foraging on the other, it probably adds up to about
maybe 80 to 90 percent of the minimum daily U.S. caloric
intake requirement. So judged by American standards, these are
pretty minimal diets.
So there's the humanitarian problem. There were reports
recently of children starving.
There's a second problem, of course, which is an economic
problem. Because people are going out to either plant their own
food or forage for food, they're not always showing up in their
factories or other places of employment. There have been
reports recently from visitors to North Korea that say that in
some areas only one in 20 factories seem to be operating
because people are off trying to get food. So the humanitarian
problem of low rations, not enough food, translates into an
We do not yet see signs, and I think it's very difficult to predict
that we will see this, but we don't see signs that this is translated
into a political problem. The country has a very strong military, a
very strong security force. Its leadership appears to be secure.
Therefore, we don't see political turmoil or disarray in North
Korea today -- we don't see political instability.
The question you raised goes beyond these three issues --
humanitarian, economic and political, to stability. Peace and
stability on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea is and has been for some time a military threat to
South Korea. It has a huge army -- the fourth largest in the
world, 1.4 million people. The army appears to be better fed
than the population as a whole. And the army is continuing to
train, but some types of training have dropped off from past
We do not see signs of heightened military readiness in North
Korea; we don't see signs that any sort of military action is
imminent in North Korea. But I want to be very clear, that most
of the army -- about 50 percent of it -- is arrayed along the
demilitarized zone. They have one of the world's largest artillery
forces along the demilitarized zone trained on South Korea.
They would be able to launch a very potent military strike in a
very short amount of time.
Having said that, we and the Republic of Korea also, have
extremely effective, powerful, well trained and well fed forces.
We can respond with devastating force to any attack that came
from North Korea. We're prepared to do that, we're trained to
do it, and that's why we're there.
Right now the security situation on the Korean peninsula is really
unchanged. It has been a potential tinderbox for some time, and
it remains a potential tinderbox, but we don't see new factors in
terms of troop movements, in terms of planning, that leads us to
believe the situation is any more dangerous today than it was last
month or last year.
Q: You said 1.4 million -- I guess you meant...
A: I meant to say 1.2 million. It's about 1.2 million. and of
course there are also six million people in the North Korean
Reserves, so it remains a very powerful and well trained military
force, and the country appears to be largely under military rule.
Q: Can you characterize the dropoff in military training and do
you attribute this to be mainly due to economic problems?
A: I think we don't have enough knowledge about North
Korean thinking to be able to explain these. Any explanation I
gave now would be speculation and I'd rather not speculate
Q: I wanted to expand on your point if I could, Ken. The VIP
defector from North Korea to the South has said recently two
things. I want to see if you feel they're propaganda or based in
fact. One, that war is likely or imminent. And two, North Korea
now has nuclear weapons. Despite the fact that there doesn't
seem to be any change in military posture, what's the current
intelligence of this building? Is war likely? Any more likely than it
was before? Before being the past few months or a year. And
two, do we now believe that North Korea does, in fact, have
A: We have believed for some years that North Korea may
have generated or accumulated enough plutonium to make at
least one nuclear weapon. We don't know whether it has. We
believe that it acquired enough plutonium to be able to do that.
The point to make about the security situation on the Korean
peninsula is that the clearest way for both countries to remain
stable and safe, and the clearest way for North Korea to solve
its domestic, economic, and humanitarian problems is to reach a
peace agreement on the peninsula and to concentrate on
economic growth and political reform rather than military
buildup. That is what we've been trying to achieve in talks with
the North Koreans; President Clinton has proposed the four
party talks. Those talks have not gotten off the ground as much
as we'd like. We are hopeful that they will.
In some ways, North Korea has been more forthcoming in the
last couple of years than in the past. It's cooperated some on
searches for the remains of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War;
it signed, most significantly, the framework agreement in 1994 to
freeze its nuclear program, and it's stuck to that.
As you know, there has been some humanitarian aid granted by
Japan and the United States, South Korea, and other countries
to North Korea. So there is a little more engagement now with
the international community than there has been in the past.
Q: Let me ask you very specifically. Do we feel war is likely
based on what this VIP has been reporting now that he's in the
A: We feel that war has always been a threat on the peninsula. It
remains a threat on the peninsula. We do not see signs today
that it's more likely than it has been in the past months or recent
Q: If I could follow up. The defector, Mr. Hwang, in a report
that was published last week, spoke about casting a sea of fire
on the south from the North; spoke of blackmailing the United
States into inaction by threatening Japan with annihilation. And
now we have, I believe, the No Dong missile, the North Korean
missile that can reach Japan, has been deployed, is operational.
And Ken, I would ask what does the Department say about the
capabilities of that missile? Can it carry a nuclear device?
A: I'm not going to comment on the No Dong missile. There
have been some reports in the Japanese press about that in the
last couple of weeks, and I don't want to get into intelligence
information on that or any other missile system that hasn't been
discussed publicly before.
Q: What do you think about Mr. Hwang's credibility, and have
we actually talked to him yet?
A: We have not talked to him yet. We are getting back- briefed
by the South Koreans.
As you know, South Korean authorities at the highest level have
promised that we will have access to him. I wouldn't anticipate
that will happen for several weeks, but we will have a chance to
talk to him.
I'd just point out that defector Hwang used to be "Mr. Ideology"
in Pyongyang. He was the person who was sort of in charge of
their ideological or propaganda program. Much of what he said
recently is what North Korea has been saying for years about
raining a sea of fire down on its enemies, etc. So beyond that,
beyond saying that his comments aren't particularly new, don't
have a particularly new ring to them, I don't want to say more.
Q: In the conference with Mr. Qichen this afternoon, will
Secretary Cohen and the Chinese, our people and the Chinese,
be going over these issues about Korea? Especially the
credibility of Mr. Hwang?
A: Without getting into specifics, I'm sure that Korea will be one
of the issues that Secretary Cohen and Foreign Minister Qichen
Q: ...technology for the machinery that's being used for the
A: That particular issue is under investigation within their own
government right now. But certainly the issue of technology and
technology transfer will come up in the conversation. I'm sure
that some of you were able to go to the briefing that Nick Burns
gave at the State Department last night after the meeting
between Secretary Albright and the Chinese Foreign Minister in
which he ran through the main topics under discussion, and
technology transfer was one of the main topics they discussed.
Q: Can you tell us the capability of the newly developed nuclear
bomb, if it can penetrate underground very deeply, and destroy
the bunkers in rogue countries?
A: In rogue countries?
A: I don't think I want to talk about that today. (Laughter)
A: That's not something I'm prepared to discuss today.
Q: Can I ask you to comment, there's a story in Jane's Defence
Weekly, and it quotes a Defense Department official, Kurt
Campbell. It says that North Korea has chemical weapons
stored near the South Korean border, close to the DMZ zone.
He said these weapons are stored in tunnels or buried with the
other North Korea's inventory of artillery pieces, etc. He says
there's "nothing the U.S. can do about it if North Korea wanted
to roll out artillery and fire on Seoul." That's a direct quote. At
the same time he said the U.S. doesn't believe any such attack is
imminent. Any comment?
A: What's your question?
Q: My question is, is this true? Are there chemical weapons
stored near the...
A: Kurt Campbell is our building's expert on North Korea and
the Asia Pacific area generally. I think he speaks with some
knowledge about that. But I also point out that he said that we
do not believe that any attack is imminent.
We, I think, made it very clear before Desert Storm, that we
were prepared to respond to any use of chemical weapons by
Iraq with devastating force. We've made it very clear in
congressional testimony recently on the Chemical Weapons
Convention which the Senate recently ratified. I think any
country in the world should know that we are ready and able to
respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction in a very
quick and aggressive way.
Q: Do we have chemical weapons in South Korea?
A: I don't want to... We do not use chemical weapons. We are
destroying our supply of chemical weapons. That's a decision
that was made by President Reagan. We have made it clear
many times that we believe that we could respond to a possible
chemical attack in a devastating way without ourselves using
Q: We were talking earlier about North Korea. That information
that you had with regard to how many people were foraging, the
minimum caloric requirements and so forth, where did that
information come from?
A: There has been information that's come out of NGO
organizations and others. There are people here in Washington
who have been over there with humanitarian organizations,
looking at the food situation. There have been reporters there
recently. I saw just today a CNN report with footage from
North Korea. So there have been people over there who have
had a chance to observe at least some of the conditions.
In addition, we do know there have been some defectors who
have been talking about the conditions in North Korea, so there
are a variety of sources.
Q: In response to these heightened reports of famine there. As
far as you know, have we stepped up any operations -- whether
it be intelligence gathering in the North -- to get a better picture
of what's really going on there?
A: We have always been aggressive at gathering information
about North Korea. South Korea is also very aggressive at
gathering information about North Korea. I don't think there's
been any change in our intelligence posture.