West catches Korean 'war' jitters

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The Independent Online


The Korean peninsula, the last potential Cold War flashpoint, is in a state of political confusion, and governments in Seoul, Tokyo, Peking and Washington are experiencing what a Western diplomat called "heightened anxiety" about the region's security over the winter.

Their concern comes when fears about the military ambitions of Communist North Korea should be easing. Yesterday in New York, Pyongyang finally signed a deal with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (Kedo), a consortium including South Korea, Japan and the US, setting terms under which Kedo will supply two light-water reactors to replace North Korean graphite models capable of being used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

The signing brings near to a close an uneasy chapter in relations with Pyongyang which began in 1992 when the International Atomic Energy Agency drew attention to North Korea's potential nuclear programme. But as one threat recedes, new anxieties are emerging.

South Korean fighters scrambled yesterday to test the readiness of defences against Northern attack. Seoul holds such exercises monthly but yesterday the intelligence chief warned that the danger of conflict had been heightened by internal crisis in the North. Last week President Kim Young Sam, said many North Korean planes had moved near the border, putting them within six minutes' bombing range of Seoul. On Thursday, Chinese officials were quoted as saying they feared a North Korean attack on the South.

However, troop movements are not unusual at this time of year, as the Northern army begins winter training, and Seoul has a vested interest in keeping its people on their toes. Such scare-stories are almost routine. The anxiety of foreign governments - much less routine - is based on almost complete ignorance of Pyongyang's internal politics and the grim state of the North Korean economy.

Since the death of the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung in June last year, the country has been without an officially acknowledged head of state. His son, Kim Jong Il, is assumed to be in charge but his failure to assume the title of president has provoked speculation about a power struggle with the military. Since the end of the Cold War, weakening trade links with China and the former Soviet Union have further undermined an already weak economy; floods and poor harvests have caused widespread food shortages and malnutrition. Japanese defence officials have said they fear the possibility of North Korean aggression against the South in the late winter, when food stocks in parts of the country are likely to be close to exhaustion.

If the North launched an attack, it would probably be a limited one, designed to bring the US and South Korea to the negotiating table to face fresh demands for cash and aid. For both allies, it is a more than usually nightmarish prospect. Seoul is embroiled in a political crisis which has led to the detention of two former presidents and which threatens to split the Kim government.

In Washington, the patience of the Republican Congress and the public in agreeing to overseas deployment of troops is already being tested by the UN mission to Bosnia.

Diplomats say there is no tangible reason for alarm, just a lengthening list of uncertainties, ambiguities and doubts. "There are thousands of guys in this city paid a lot of money to spend their days worrying full- time about North Korea," said a Western diplomat. "The truth is that we have very little concrete information. But if worrying is your job, then there's a lot more than usual to worry about at the moment."