Eye to eye with Armageddon: Geoffrey Lean reports from South Korea, a country caught between American resolve and the North's nuclear ambition

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THEY were giving the buildings in the Demilitarised Zone a new coat of dark brown paint last Friday. But nobody could tell me whether this was for Jimmy Carter's return from his North Korean peace mission the next day or for the feared arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse some time in the next few weeks.

Certainly, it was the only sign of unusual military activity along the world's tensest border. There was a 'be happy' smiling face sign at the entrance to the heavily fortified buffer zone. Farmers tended rice paddies and rows of ginseng within the 4,000-yard- wide DMZ itself. And when Captain Kevin Warren, our armed American escort, was asked whether anything exceptional was going on, he replied: 'Just more painting.'

It was much the same at the demarcation line itself - an 8ft-high chain-link fence, topped with 2ft of coiled barbed wire - the last remnant of the Iron Curtain that once wound around one-quarter of the world. Loud propaganda is often broadcast from the northern side for up to 15 hours a day, but I could only hear birdsong from the dense, dappled woods on the other side of the fence.

Over lunch, not far from the building where a North Korean official recently threatened to turn Seoul - just 35 miles away - into a 'sea of fire', Major General Bernard Sandoz told me that he had 'seen nothing out of the ordinary over the past few days, except for President Carter'.

Two days before, the former president had crossed the narrow wooden 'Bridge of No Return' on his private mission to Kim Il Sung, the erratic head of the last Stalinist state and, it is feared, the latest member of the nuclear weapons club.

Yesterday Mr Carter returned, with the agreement of the elderly dictator, to the first summit between North and South Korea, and what he described as 'a foundation on which to build a resolution of the nuclear crisis'. But the South's government is sceptical, fearing that the former president's visit has just enabled the North to buy time.

General Sandoz leads a team of six Swiss officers who make up one-third of the international contingent at Panmunjom, and he has an unusual perspective on the crisis here. Though Mr Carter did not share his thoughts as he passed through, the general found another recent visitor, General Lee Chan Bok, the North Korean commandant, more forthcoming. 'He made clear his country's determination that they are not going to kneel down under any pressure.'

What if there was war, I asked. 'We will leave, if we can,' said the general, a man in his sixties. 'We are unarmed. I know we are vulnerable, but I have lived so many good years that I can afford to be.'

THROUGHOUT the past uneasy week, there has been much the same air of unreal calm, tinged with fatalism, in Seoul itself. Startlingly close to the border, it is home to 11 million people, more than one-quarter of the country's population.

It takes just half an hour to drive from the border fence to the outskirts of the city, past emergency yellow traffic barriers made by the Lucky Development Company and through an apparently endless series of vast concrete bridges, primed with explosives so that they could be brought crashing down in the paths of tanks.

Military sources say that the North's troops could march to the city in two hours and, despite all South Korea's defences, could probably envelop Seoul - one of the largest cities in the world - within a week. A missile, they add, would get there in 20 seconds.

The CIA believes that, despite his denials, Kim Il Sung probably already has at least one nuclear bomb, made with plutonium from its 'peaceful' nuclear power programme, and is on his way to acquiring five or six more. Two weeks ago, North Korea successfully tested a missile over the Sea of Japan.

It may not yet be able to put the two together, by making a bomb small enough to serve as a missile warhead. But there is little doubt - though Mr Carter's visit may at least temporarily have eased the tension - that Seoul is living under the shadow of Armageddon.

Even a conventional war would be horrific. The Korean war of 1950-53 caused enormous carnage - more than three million casualties of whom about half a million died - and North Korea announced last week that a new conflict would be 'merciless'. Today two million soldiers face each other across the border, and US intelligence believes that Kim Il Sung has 250 tons of chemical weapons that could be delivered by missiles or artillery.

And as America and its allies last week prepared proposals for United Nations sanctions to force North Korea to open its nuclear programme to international inspection, the North's diplomats repeated that this would be tantamount to a declaration of war. Mr Carter, after eight hours of talks with Kim Il Sung, believes that the threat is real.

Yet Seoul is a city in denial. I was astonished to find it almost completely calm. The exception was the expatriate community, which is mildly alarmed. This shows in small ways. Twice as much alcohol was drunk at the Queen's official birthday reception at the British embassy as last year. July and August are traditional months to leave, but many have left early. Only 10 of the 17 diplomatic children who accepted invitations to attend a birthday party last Sunday, turned up. The rest had left the country.

The South Koreans themselves have shown little concern. Three-quarters of them have been born since the end of the Korean war, and during their lifetimes the economy has boomed: per capita income has soared from dollars 82 in 1961 to dollars 7,500 last year. Then one of the poorest countries, it is now the world's 13th largest trader. North Korea, by contrast, has been left badly behind.

Most South Koreans think that the North will never attack. They accept that it has a much bigger army, but consider its economy too fragile to sustain a war. And it would not use a nuclear weapon, they say, because it would be obliterated by the American counterstrike. 'Even Kim Il Sung will not commit peninsular hara-kiri,' said one top South Korean diplomat.

They have also been inured by years of false alarms. In the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea's military government boosted its authority by continually predicting invasion. The last war has not officially ended: there is only a ceasefire. So military tension is not new. 'What do you want me to tell you? That we are in a state of alert?' snapped Seoul's mayor, when asked about the situation. 'That is evident . . . we have been in such situations for more than 40 years.'

BUT many leading South Koreans privately say that this time the threat is real enough. Their nonchalance is a front. 'What else can we do? We have nowhere else to go,' said one senior official. 'What else can we do but pretend to be calm?'

They point out that this time their predicament is different, because it combines two crises. One is the familiar tension between the two halves of a divided country. The other is the emerging international crisis over nuclear proliferation, which the Clinton administration has put at the top of its agenda.

The United States believes that to allow North Korea to develop nuclear bombs would have consequences far beyond the two Koreas, since it would help to spread them around the world. Some countries, such as Libya and Iran, would be encouraged to build their own, while North Korea might export them. The South Korean government is already under some pressure at home to produce, or buy, its own plutonium.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the world's fragile defence against the spread of the Bomb, is up for renewal next year. Failure over the Koreas might seal its doom.

These senior South Koreans fear that the United States and the West might be prepared to risk war on the peninsula to stop this. In the dry words of one Western diplomat: 'The solutions to the two interlocking crises may unfortunately not be compatible.'

Last week I was among a party of foreign visitors to Seoul, invited to meet President Kim Young-Sam. It was billed a 'courtesy call', because he did not want to talk about the crisis, but as I waited to see him, an official whispered in my ear: 'Frankly, we are not afraid that North Korea will start a war. We are more worried about America. We fear it will pressure Kim Il Sung into making an attack.'

On Wednesday, outside the Korea Long Term Credit Bank in the crowded Myong-Dong district of the capital, the hell- fire preacher was predicting the end of the world, and a legless dwarf played taped hymns. Then the sirens sounded.

Within two minutes the packed streets were deserted. Shoppers had darted into underground stations or shop doors; cars had pulled over to the side of the road, and their occupants had disappeared. The preachertook up his cross and left, with a sense of self- righteous justification, leaving the dwarf to shuffle on his bottom into the lee of a wall.

It was just an exercise, decreed by a government that was beginning to think that the public calm was becoming excessive, in the wake of North Korea's announcement that it will be the first country voluntarily to quit the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The mayor of Seoul advised people to stock up with enough food to feed a family of four for two weeks, and the government called up 6.6 million members of the Civil Defence Corps.

These moves finally brought the threat of war to the front of people's minds. Sales of rice quadrupled in some stores, though there was still little panic buying. The stock exchange fell, but did not crash. And travel agents reported a small increase in the number of people booking hasty holidays abroad.

Feeling it had done enough, the government then went back to spreading reassurance. Sung- Joo Han, the Foreign Minister, said: 'Despite the war talk, there is no need to worry about an outbreak of hositilities.'

Normally an eloquent man, Sung-Joo Han speaks slowly, measuring every word as if afraid that an incautious comment will obliterate his country. Kim Il Sung, he says, has mentioned 'various actions and measures', and adds: 'We don't know whether he will carry them out, or what is the last card that he will throw.'

One of his senior officials explains that it is usually possible to read the intentions of countries, because they normally act reasonably predictably. But in a dictatorship such as North Korea, this is almost impossible because it is ruled by the whim of Kim and his son, his designated successor.

The government is hoping that, if a strong enough threat of step-by-step sanctions gets through the UN Security Council, the crisis will be resolved before any action has to be taken. But neutral diplomats who have been in contact with the North doubt this.

They say the North feels isolated and surrounded, and that Kim and his son would sooner go down fighting than suffer the the Ceausescus' fate. Mr Carter, too, insists that sanctions would be 'counterproductive' because North Korea's economy is self-reliant: a UN resolution would be inflammatory because it would brand the country as an outlaw and its self-styled Great Leader as a liar and criminal. 'This is something it would be impossible for them to accept,' he says.

Maybe Mr Carter's initiative can yet defuse the crisis. The South doubts it, pointing out that similar summits have been mooted before but have never materialised, and warning that the North is using every means to hand to try to avoid the sanctions resolution.

But outside the Bank of Long Term Credit in Seoul, the preacher was at it again yesterday, still expecting that before long he will have just enough time to tell the calm shoppers around him: 'Don't say you were not warned.'

POWERFUL NEIGHBOURS KEEP KOREA DIVIDED

Korea has a longer history as a unified political entity than most European countries. Before partition in 1945 the peninsula had been united for 12 centuries. Surrounded as it is by big powers, however, it has rarely enjoyed great stability.

In 1910, Japan annexed the peninsula and ran it as a colony until defeat in the Second World War. What happened next mirrored events in post- war Germany. Temporary military occupation zones - Soviet in the North and American in the South - became Cold War fixtures.

In the North a communist regime was established under Kim Il Sung, a puppet of Stalin. In the South, where the US passed formal responsibility to the United Nations, elections were soon held, which were widely criticised as corrupt. They installed as president Syngman Rhee, a right-winger and veteran opponent of Japanese rule. Both governments claimed jurisdiction over the whole peninsula.

The Rhee government was unpopular because it opposed social reform and employed many officials who had worked for the Japanese, and a guerrilla struggle began in the South, which received Northern backing. Clashes became frequent along the 38th parallel, dividing the peninsula.

On 25 June 1950 Northern troops invaded, and within two months had captured almost all of the South. The UN Security Council condemned the attack (the Soviet Union, then boycotting the council, could not use its veto) and called for international military action under the US General, Douglas MacArthur.

Sixteen countries contributed troops although US forces dominated. The British contingent comprised at its peak about 14,000 men, and 749 Britons lost their lives.

In September 1950, MacArthur launched a seaborne attack at Inchon which proved so successful that within another month most of the North had been taken. At this point the Chinese army intervened en masse, rapidly sweeping south to positions close to the 38th Parallel, where the present ceasefire line and the DMZ were fixed in July 1953.

(Photograph and maps omitted)

Carter's comeback, page 19

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