Cohen calls for care with North Korea

BANGKOK, Thailand, AP

Despite easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, the United States will stay vigilant as long as North Korea keeps a huge army on its border with South Korea, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said Tuesday.

“We are encouraged by the steps that we see being taken. But we must remain vigilant because of the size of the army that the North Koreans still maintain,” Cohen told reporters here.

He said North Korea keeps 800,000 troops and heavy artillery at the border, posing a “serious threat to people in Seoul and beyond.”

Cohen, who stopped overnight in Thailand during a regional tour, arrived in South Korea late Tuesday for a three-day visit. He will meet with Defense Minister Cho Sung-tae on Thursday for an annual U.S. South Korean security meeting and also pay a courtesy call on President Kim Dae-jung.

South Korea hopes the meetings will ease U.S. concerns that the growing rapprochement on the divided Korean peninsula might lead to calls for withdrawal of 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in the south.

“It is clear that there has been a reduction in the tensions that previously existed,” Cohen acknowledged. But, he added, this is only the “first stages … toward a reconciliation.”

“We have to be very cautious,” he said.

The two Koreas have seen a serious thaw in relations since their leaders met in June and agreed to work together for reconciliation.

Defense ministers of the two Koreas are scheduled to hold talks next week on Cheju, a resort island off South Korea’s southern coast.

On Monday, South Korea started rebuilding a railroad line across the border with North Korea in a bid to increase exchanges and trade. A new four-lane highway will run alongside it. More than 1 million land mines and 2 million troops are positioned on both sides of the border, the world’s most heavily armed.

“It is important that as the steps are taken, we remain vigilant. Prudence is the watchword for all concerned,” Cohen said.

When it is completed next year, the railway and highway will be the first direct transport link between the two Koreas since the 1950-53 Korean War. The Korean peninsula was partitioned at the end of the World War II into the pro-Western south and the communist north.

During his meetings with South Korean officials, Cohen is also expected to discuss extending Seoul’s missile program.

South Korea has long hoped to extend the range of its missiles to 300 kilometers (186 miles) to cover all of North Korea. Under a 1979 agreement with Washington, South Korea cannot develop missiles with a range longer than 180 kilometers (112 miles).

Washington fears that South Korea’s attempt to lengthen missile ranges could start a regional arms race.

U.S. and North Korean negotiators will resume talks in New York next week in an attempt to end a stalemate over Pyongyang’s development and export of missiles.