WASHINGTON — THE military standoff on the Korean peninsula, perhaps the last outpost of the cold war, is enduring a sudden blast of chillier weather.
Earlier this month, the United States and South Korea announced that after a one-year break they are resuming planning for their "Team Spirit" joint military exercise. The reason: concern about North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Piqued, North Korea last week pulled out of talks intended to narrow differences over mutual inspections of nuclear facilities. US officials retort that until they are satisfied with Pyongyang's openness on this issue, they will keep US troop withdrawals from South Korea on hold.
"We are not prepared to move forward with any further adjustment in US forces until we and our Republic of Korea allies are persuaded that the North Korean program has indeed been ended," Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney said after meeting in Washington with his South Korean counterpart.
This cold snap is occurring after a prolonged period of relative thaw. During the past two years, relations between North and South Korea have been improving, as the North's President Kim Il Sung appeared to recognize that continued isolation of his country would permanently impede its economic progress.
Last December, North and South Korea signed a mutual non-aggression treaty and committed themselves to establishing a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Meanwhile, the US was reducing its presence in South Korea by 7,000 troops, down to today's level of about 37,000. "Team Spirit," an annual event since the early 1970s, was canceled.
But suspicions about the North's real intentions have hardened to the point where, at their annual security consultation meeting this month, the US and South Korea decided "Team Spirit" planning should resume. US officials say a further decision must be made by January as to whether the exercise will actually be held. If the maneuvers do occur, Pyongyang will "suspend the peace process" with Seoul, according to a threat read on North Korean radio.
This bluster comes amid dire economic straits. The North Korean military now has so little fuel that it has cut back drastically on routine activities, according to Gen. Robert RisCassi, the commander of US forces in South Korea.
Warplane training flights are much reduced. The North's own large military exercises have been curtailed. There is not even enough fuel to move large weapons such as artillery pieces around very often.
"We see an effect on readiness," General RisCassi said at a meeting with defense reporters.
The fuel shortage is affecting civilians as well, threatening power generation and heating capability. Even food stocks are "marginal," the general says.
On the other hand, RisCassi says, the North Korean military retains emergency logistical stocks, enabling it to mount an assault if it chooses. Since 1984, he says, the North Koreans have pushed a larger percentage of their military forward toward the dividing line between North and South, bringing more artillery within range of Seoul. Northern military commanders have also greatly increased the mechanization of their units.
"Clearly he enjoys the capability to mount a no-notice attack," RisCassi says.
But political change is looming on the North Korean horizon. Mr. Kim, the leader whose iron hand and personality cult have ruled the nation for decades, is 80 years old and now the longest serving head of state in the world.
Mr. Kim continues to groom his son, Kim Jong Il, as his successor. Whether the son will command the same level of obedience is an open issue.
"There is going to be fundamental change in North Korea," RisCassi says. "The question is, is the country going to explode or implode?"