Calm in Korea Belies Tension in Nuclear Dispute

US grows impatient with North over nuclear inspections as Feb. 21 deadline nears

`WE don't think there's going to be a war, it's just media hype,'' shrugs a Seoul shopkeeper. A woman edging past a stacked heap of oranges agrees: ``After 40 years, we're immune to the military problem with North Korea.''

Despite such blase assessments by South Koreans, tensions are rising as the United States turns up the heat on North Korea over its suspected nuclear weapons program and its refusal to agree to full inspections of its nuclear sites.

The US plans to go ahead with joint military exercises with South Korea this March if North Korea fails to allow inspections. And Washington is sending defensive Patriot missiles to South Korea to upgrade forces.

Most of all, Washington is tiring of fruitless dialogue with Pyongyang. The standoff is expected to result in a showdown sometime around Feb. 21, by which time North Korea must agree to allow the United Nations-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to scrutinize its nuclear facilities, or face the prospect of a UN-led trade embargo.

Pyongyang has been stalling for nearly a year on international inspections of its seven declared nuclear sites, and, despite negotiations with Washington, is still blocking access to two sites thought to hold vital clues as to whether Kim Il Sung's regime is secretly building a nuclear bomb - or has already done so.

``They are very good at playing this brinkmanship strategy,'' says Kim Kook Chin, dean for research at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, a South Korean government think tank.

He and other analysts point out that North Korea has skillfully dragged its old enemy, the United States, into direct talks while making no real concessions itself.

The key problem for the Clinton administration and the UN is to gauge whether intense external pressure on the already impoverished state will force North Korean compliance, or trigger another Korean war, and whether China, a key North Korean ally, will veto UN sanctions.

South Korean officials tend to share the sanguineness of their people: ``To the Americans, Kim Il Sung's North Korea is a rogue state and can do anything,'' says Mr. Kim the analyst. ``But as we see it, the North Koreans have highly calculated the cost and risk of their behavior.''

South Korean President Kim Young Sam yesterday predicted that the North Korean nuclear impasse would be solved ``in one way or another'' this year.

In Seoul, it is widely believed that Pyongyang realizes that an attack on the South would trigger a heavy US military response.

South Korea and the US are clearly braced for the worst. Their preparations include the recent review of US military capability in South Korea, and the planned dispatch of defensive Patriot missiles to US bases there.

Pyongyang responded to reports of the Patriot deployment with expected vitriol, calling it ``an unpardonable, grave military challenge'' that would ``increase the danger of war.''

North Korea has developed and exported its own version of the Soviet Scud missile.

Last May it tested the Rodong 1, a medium-range ballistic missile capable of reaching not only South Korea, but also much of Japan.

Successful economic sanctions will require scrupulous observance by North Korea's powerful neighbors: Russia, China, and Japan.

In Japan, for instance, officials would be hard pressed to stop the flow of millions of dollars to North Korea from friendly ethnic Koreans.

State Department officials reportedly suspect that the Russia's Pacific fleet is ``freelancing'' - that is, selling additional submarines not authorized by Moscow.

Perhaps most crucial of all is China, North Korea's main diplomatic ally and - so far - an opponent of sanctions. Beijing supplies most of the North's oil, which is crucial to keep its military on the ready.

Yet China is believed to have its own reason to dissuade Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons; analysts say if North Korea goes nuclear, Japan will eventually follow suit and build a bomb of its own.

Despite North Korea's threatening rhetoric and its reputed nuclear threat, it has not recently beefed up its conventional military preparations for war, US and South Korean officials say.

The view over the frozen hills on North Korea's side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) is that of a stolid face-off, not imminent invasion.

``We've seen no signs that they're up to anything,'' says Capt. Kevin Warren, a US officer serving with the UN Command Security Force on the DMZ.

Gesturing toward the Stalinist tower blocks of an uninhabited village used by North Koreans to entice Southerners over to their ``workers' paradise,'' he adds, ``So far, the conflict is purely diplomatic.''

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