War alert as North Korea scraps peace

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The Independent Online

Associated Press

Seoul - South Korea put its military on a heightened state of alert yesterday following North Korea's apparent dismissal of an armistice agreement.

The move affects primarily military intelligence and other units charged with watching for a build-up of North Korean troops and arms along the demilitarised zone separating the rival nations. No major troop movements were involved and a US spokesman said most of the 37,000 American military personnel in South Korea would not be affected.

"It will have no impact on them, by and large," said Jim Coles, the spokesman for both American and United Nations forces in Seoul. Mr Coles described the move as "an incremental step" that involves more frequent and more intensive monitoring of the North Korean military. The Defence Ministry said it was stepping up intelligence gathering activities immediately in conjunction with the US and UN military command. South Korean air, naval and ground patrols will be stepped up and more troops put on standby.

The Defence Ministry said North Korea's latest action "is an almost complete abrogation of the armistice, and different from its previous moves to discredit it.

"It looks as if North Korea is looking for an excuse to step up military provocation," the ministry said.

North Korea announced on Thursday that it would "give up its duty" of jointly controlling the 2.5-mile-wide demilitarised zone separating it from South Korea.

It said the action was in response to South Korea moving personnel, tanks, artillery and other heavy arms into the zone in violation of the armistice, which South Korea denies.

Thursday's declaration was seen as the latest step in a series of moves by North Korea aimed at forcing the US to negotiate a peace treaty by proving the armistice ineffective. Last year, North Korea forced out neutral peace observers on its side of the border.

In reissuing its demand for peace talks earlier this year, North Korea said it would make one final move to prove that the armistice is worthless. Washington has rebuffed North Korea's calls for talks, saying it must negotiate with the South. But the communist North refuses to talk with what it calls a puppet state.

The demilitarised zone was established at the end of the Korean War in 1953. The two sides have never signed a permanent peace treaty and are still technically at war.

In Washington on Thursday, the US State Department urged the North Koreans "to abide by their responsibilities under the armistice and to avoid provocative actions". North Korea's statement said its personnel and vehicles would no longer bear distinctive insignia and markings when entering the joint security area at Panmunjom and the demilitarised zone.

Last week, North Korea's vice defence minister accused the South of planning an attack and said that war on the peninsula was only a matter of time.

That statement was reiterated on Thursday by Yang Hyong Sop, chairman of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, in a speech reported by Radio Pyongyang in the northern capital. "The only issue is when [war] will begin," Yang said. "There is no longer any doubt that war will break out[with an invasion from the south]."