`Random' attacks prompt Seoul to fear of wave of terror

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In other circumstances, you might have taken them as no more than random acts of urban violence, writes Richard Lloyd Parry.

Late on Tuesday night, in two of the most lawless cities in East Asia, a pair of expatriates were savagely attacked. The first incident occurred in Vladivostok, the crime-racked port of the Russian Far East, where a 54-year-old man was found bludgeoned to death on the stairs of his apartment block.

The second took place in Phnom Penh, equally notorious capital of Cambodia, where a 46-year-old hotel executive lies in a coma after being shot in his car by an unidentified motorcyclist. The crimes were separated by 2,000 miles, but several things conspire to cast them in a sinister light.

For a start, neither man appears to have been robbed, although the wallet of the Vladivostok victim, a diplomat, contained the cash equivalent of $1,000. Most suspicious of all, the attacks were both carried out on South Koreans, at a time when tension has escalated between North and South Korea. The suspicion is that the attacks may be the latest shots in a dangerous confrontation between the Cold War rivals.

The latest troubles began a fortnight ago with the discovery of a washed- up North Korean submarine on the coast of South Korea. It had apparently come to grief while engaged on a spying mission, and 23 of its crew have so far been killed or captured. Pyongyang claimed, implausibly, that the sub had simply drifted off course. Seoul insists equally unconvincingly that the craft was the precursor of a full-scale invasion.

With the mediation of the United States, the North had over the last two years been making faltering steps towards better relations with the outside world. Last year, South Korea grudgingly provided food aid after shortages; three weeks ago, the Stalinist North hosted an unprecedented investment forum in an effort to promote a free-trade zone. This week, however, the South Korean president, Kim Young Sam, announced that further aid and negotiation were out of the question, and put the forces on high alert.

At a meeting with the American-led United Nations Command in the demilitarised zone, the North Koreans threatened "serious consequences" for the deaths of their submarine crew.

Thus, the suspicion about the two recent attacks. The murder of the diplomat in Vladivostok, Choi Duk Kun, is particularly ominous. Police said publicly that political assassination was unlikely, but privately, they point to intriguing circumstantial evidence: three men of Asian appearance were seen running away; Vladivostok is only 100 miles from the North Korean border, and one of Mr Choi's responsibilities at the consulate was to monitor North Korean affairs.

Even if there was no connection, the peninsula is in for a tense and dangerous few months. A Northern army of more than 1 million faces South Korean and US forces across the demilitarised zone. With inferior equipment, and shortages of food and fuel, a full-scale attack would appear suicidal. But, according to a Japanese diplomat in Tokyo: "The danger is that either side will push the other just too far."

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