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Seoul looks to boost air defenses

The North will join six-party talks in Beijing this week.
The North will join six-party talks in Beijing this week.

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• Analysis: What are the options?
• Six-nation talks: Where they stand
• Interactive: N. Korea military might
• Timeline: Nuclear development
• Interactive: The nuclear club
• Satellite image: Nuclear facility
• Special report: Nuclear crisis
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SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- South Korea is to buy four airborne surveillance aircraft to beef up its defenses against North Korea.

The country's Ministry of National Defense said the aircraft will be delivered by 2011 and will "significantly improve" its air defense system.

"By securing these airborne early warning systems, we will be able to precisely detect and track movements of North Korean troops," Maj. Gen. Won Jang-hwan, the ministry's top procurement officer, said Monday.

South and North Korea have remained technically at war since an armistice in 1953 ended fighting on the Korean peninsula, and the North occasionally tests the South's defenses with incursions on land and by sea.

Both sides maintain a heavy military presence on the demilitarized zone (DMZ), 37 miles (59 kilometers) north of the South Korean capital Seoul. About 37,000 U.S. troops also are stationed in South Korea.

Until now, South Korea's military has relied on U.S. surveillance planes based in Okinawa, Japan.

Won said five aircraft models were under consideration. They are the Airbus A320-200 of French supplier Thales, the IL-76 and G-550 from IAI/Elta of Israel, the A321-200 from L3-Com of the United States and Boeing's B737-700.

Won said the aircraft were intended to detect and identify airborne intruders, and act as control centers in guiding fighter-interceptors and tactical air force aircraft to combat areas.

The announcement comes as South Korea prepares to join six-party talks in Beijing this week on the crucial question of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Along with the two Koreas, the participants in the talks include Japan, China, Russia and the United States.

The North admitted in October 2002 that it had a secret nuclear program, and followed up that revelation by kicking out U.N. inspectors and withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

The U.S. and its allies want North Korea to scrap its nuclear program. In response, Pyongyang has said it will freeze these activities if it gets economic aid and a security guaranee from the United States.

Separately, South Korea said Tuesday it will send about 200 non-combat personnel to Afghanistan this week to help the U.S.-led coalition forces there.

Yonhap news agency, quoting the defense ministry, said the engineers and medical staff will leave Seoul Friday for a six-month tour of duty.

South Korea has had about 680 personnel in Afghanistan since February 2002, working on humanitarian and reconstruction projects.

In addition to its Afghanistan contribution, Seoul has committed to deploy 3,600 troops, including combat personnel, to the northern Iraqi province of Kirkuk in late April.

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