North Korea goes on war footing

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The Independent Online
NORTH Korea was yesterday put on "wartime mobilisation", apparently to coincide with seasonal military exercises.

The restrictions, which cleared the streets of Pyongyang of people, have also come into force just as Korean peace negotiations are due to restart in Geneva, and as the country is approaching the mid-March period when the official state media said grain supplies would run out. North Korea last week said daily rations had been cut from 300 grams in January to 100 grams in March.

North Korea-watchers in Peking said they believed the war-footing was connected with military exercises which usually take place in the spring.

Foreign diplomats in Pyongyang were told of the wartime mobilisation yesterday morning when they were issued with a government statement. Under the instructions, only North Koreans will be allowed into the country and foreign residents will be restricted to Pyongyang except when given specific permission for trips "related to the food assistance", a ruling which could well impede the work of international aid agencies in the country.

The statement added: "This means that the wartime system and order applies not only to the regular armed forces, but also to the national economy and overall social life." Foreign residents in Pyongyang reported that the city was deserted yesterday.

The perpetual uncertainty about what is going on inside North Korea made it difficult for diplomats to judge whether anything more than normal civilian drills were going on. There was speculation that the clampdown might be the military flexing its muscles in order to stave off growing civil unrest over the severe food shortage. Earlier this week, the Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement from South Korea claimed that its survey of refugees on the North Korean-Chinese border suggested that up to 3 million people had died in North Korea over the past two years because of the lack of food. Diplomats cautioned that the survey was not scientific and in their opinion over-estimated the tragedy.

Pyongyang's posturing at the moment is also probably tied to the resumption of the four-party talks that are attempting to put in place a permanent peace agreement on the Korean peninsula. Today in Geneva, preliminary talks will convene between the two Koreas, United States and China, ahead of Monday's resumption of formal negotiations.