N Korea mounts new troop incursion

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For the third time in three days, armed North Korean troops yesterday entered the demilitarised zone (DMZ) which divides the North and South. The incident violated the increasingly hollow Armistice Agreement, and increased friction at the beginning of what will be an unusually tense week.

Just after 8pm on Sunday evening, about 300 soldiers of the North's Korean People's Army (KPA) drove into the 800-yard wide Joint Security Area (JSA), the only crossing point on the heavily fortified border, which remains the last Cold War flashpoint in the world. Similar incursions occurred on Friday and Saturday when as many as 260 soldiers, armed with rifles and machine guns, arrived in army trucks to take up battle positions and install mortars on the North Korean side.

Under the 1953 Armistice Agreement between Pyongyang and the United Nations, which brought to an end the Korean War, a maximum of 35 military police from either side are allowed into the JSA, armed with nothing larger than hand guns. Last Thursday, in a move that had been anticipated for several weeks, Pyongyang renounced its "duty" in the area, and said that its forces would no longer bear the required special insignia.

The announcement was accompanied by bellicose rhetoric from both North and South; in the latter, fiercely fought elections to the National Assembly will be held next week. American forces in South Korea went on the highest military watch alert in 15 years. But, far from being a prelude to invasion and war, Pyongyang's strategy appears, by many reckonings, to be aimed at a peace treaty.

Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea's industrial and agricultural output, infrastructure and economic growth have rusted almost to a standstill. Structurally, many of the components of a prospering economy are in place; crucially, what Pyongyang lacks is foreign investment. For five years, it has pinned its hopes for national survival on the greatest geo-political prize of all: a peace treaty with the US.

In seeking this, it has few tools at its disposal. On paper at least, the KPA is an alarming adversary: its million troops, supported by chemical, and perhaps nuclear, warheads outnumber the 650,000-strong South Korean army and its 37,000 American allies. But technologically, the KPA is a period piece. Much of its equipment is pre-war, fuel is scarce, and it has ranged against it the same potential force unleashed in the Gulf War. If Pyongyang chose to mobilise fully, it could certainly inflict horrible casualties on the South and its allies; it could also initiate lesser hostilities, from acts of terrorism to a limited invasion, in an attempt to force concessions. But it would be a potentially suicidal strategy. An all-out war would in the long-term be the one strategy guaranteed to bring down the North Korean government.

Its only other bargaining chip is the Armistice and, for five years, Pyongyang has been slowly whittling it away. In 1991 it suspended meetings of the supervisory Military Armistice Commission. Two years later, it expelled from its side of the DMZ neutral observers from Czechoslovakia, soon followed by the Polish delegation. Last month, North Korea diplomats began to speak of "final and decisive" steps towards annulling the Armistice, unless Washington agreed to talks. Last week's announcement, and the sabre- rattling over the weekend are the fulfilment of this promise.

Its chances of success do not appear high. South Korea is terrified of being excluded from a treaty. The Americans, publicly at least, insist that they are not interested, and that the Korean Cold War must be brought to an end by the Koreans themselves. The closest things to concessions, ironically, are coming from Pyongyang: recently it began hinting that, even after a treaty, it could tolerate a certain number of US troops on the peninsula. If the rebuffs continue, the North will be left with fewer and fewer options and most of those that remain do not bear thinking about.