Shadow of war hangs over South Korea's border city

Richard Lloyd Parry on the turmoil caused by Pyongyang's lost submarine
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The Independent Online
Kangnung, South Korea - Kangnung might be Korea's answer to Scarborough - an old-fashioned seaside town perched on the bleak but beautiful north- east coast. Instead of ruined abbeys, the countryside around Kangnung has famous Confucian temples, and instead of moors, the mountains of the Odaesan National Park. The locals live off farming (rice rather than cows) and fishing (squid rather than haddock). The town has one night club, but tourists are mostly old people, and the Kangnung they value is unglamorous and uneventful.

The problem with the Scarborough comparison is that 50 miles north of Kangnung is a 155-mile barbed wire fence, fortified on both sides by mines, tanks and one million heavily armed troops. Below the line, life passes quietly. Above it, in Stalinist North Korea, there is hunger, political terror and one of the world's least unpredictable dictatorships.

It is easy to forget Korea is divided, but 43 years after the armistice, the menace of war has not faded, as Kangnung recently discovered. In mid- September, a taxi driver motoring along a coastal road south of the city made a shocking find: bobbing on the rocks near the shore was a "dolphin- like ship". Closer inspection revealed it to be a submarine. Its crew - 26 North Korean commandos and sailors - had deserted it hours before, and were armed and at large in the countryside.

The submarine's abandonment looked like a cock-up, but it caused uproar in South Korea. Armed forces were put on alert, and President Kim Young Sam denounced the "infiltration" as an act of war. Forty thousand troops, spotter planes and helicopter gun ships mounted a man hunt. Two months later, all but one of the North Koreans have been killed or captured. But the incident galvanised hardliners in Seoul and undermined the tentative pro-gress towards peace talks with the North.

Nowhere has its impact been felt harder than in Kangnung. For more than a month, the town was under curfew, from mid-evening to early morning. During the day, traffic entering and leaving the area was stop-ped and searched, and fishing boats were ordered to stay in harbour. The timing could not have been worse: autumn is the peak tourist period and the season for songyi, a rare mountain mushroom which is a lucrative product of the area. When a songyi- picker was shot after being mistaken for an infiltrator, the supply dried up. The submarine fiasco is thought to have cost Kangnung 150 bn won (pounds 110m).

To salvage some benefit from the disaster, the town plans to turn the site of the submarine landing into a "national security historic site", with commemorative pagodas, exhibition centres and a scale model of the vessel. "Passers-by will enjoy the outstanding views, and reflect on the conscientiousness of the Korean people," says Choi Song Il of Kangnung City Hall.

Kangnung locals are stoical, but grumbles do emerge. How was the submarine allowed to make its landing on what is supposed to be one of the most heavily defended coastlines in the country? "I was a reserve soldier myself, and I stood guard on those beaches," says Bae Sun Chil, proprietor of a billiard hall, which is still suffering from the after-effects of the curfew."Someone made a mistake, and as a taxpayer I feel betrayed." Seoul appears to acknowledge this criticism. Since the submarine's discovery, the Defence and Foreign Ministers have lost their jobs.

Beyond the military's shortcomings is the question of Korea's future. Racked by food shortages and flooding, the North is closer to collapse than at any time in its history. There are risks - a suicidal, last- ditch invasion or some kind of lesser military blackmail - but also opportunities for settling the four-decade-long stand-off. The government of the South seems more interested in confrontation than in dialogue. "We need a comprehensive overall programme," says Mr Bae, "I feel more unsafe than ever. It happened once. Why shouldn't it happen again ?"