North Korea fuels frontier war fears

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The Independent Online
The 43-year-old military stand-off between North and South Korea grew more tense yesterday after the Communist North renounced its obligations in the demilitarised zone, which has separated the two armies since the Korean War ended in 1953.

South Korea warned it would retaliate against any military provocation following the announcement. After a meeting of security ministers, a defence ministry official said Seoul would not tolerate violations of the truce that ended the war.

A statement broadcast from Pyongyang announced the Korean People's Army, whose 1 million troops are massed close to the border, would "give up its duty, under the armistice agreement, concerning the maintenance and control of the military demarcation line and DMZ. Secondly, the KPA side shall ... have its personnel and vehicles bear no distinctive insignia and marking when they enter the joint security area".

The consequences are notclear but in the short term it may make little difference. The armistice, which ended the three-year war, has becomemeaningless over the last few years, with both sides accusing each another of violations. The Military Armistice Council, the bilateral body responsible for monitoring the peace, has not met since 1994, when the North withdrew its mission.

But yesterday's announcement will fuel anxiety about the intentions of Pyongyang at a troubled moment in the North's history. Apart from uncertainties about the grip on power of its reclusive "Dear Leader", Kim Jong Il, parts of the country are on the verge of famine since disastrous floods last summer ruined the rice harvest.

In December, the KPA moved bombers close to the DMZ, which is only 50km from the South Korean capital, Seoul. Since the war ended no formal peace treaty has been signed. The armistice was a military ceasefire signed by generals and without it the two sides would technically be at war again.