SEOUL — BY day, tourists continue to visit Panmunjom, the "peace village" between the two Koreas, amid chirping birds and balmy spring skies, with a vista in North Korea that could pass for Montana. By night, the peace truce negotiated there is being undermined.
Over the past few days, large numbers of heavily armed North Korean soldiers conducted military exercises there, a gross violation of the armistice treaty signed at the end of the Korean War in 1953. North Korea has been trying to annul and replace it with a peace treaty with the US.
The troop incursions follow the North's announcement last Thursday that it would no longer maintain its side of the truce obligations, upping the ante with the outside world ahead of an April 16 summit between President Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young Sam, and US-North Korean missile talks, later this month.
The actions are strategically predictable but sudden for North Korea, known for its brinkmanship, and recent provocative comments make them worrying. A week- and-a-half ago, North Korea's Vice Defense Minister Kim Kwang-jin said, "The point is not whether a war will break out ... but when it will be unleashed." There are 37,000 American troops currently stationed in South Korea. If war broke out, many more would be drawn from bases in the region and mainland United States.
The Korean War, fought in brutal winters over steep, rocky hills from 1950 to '53, claimed as many American lives (over 50,000) in three years as Vietnam did in 10.
South Korean President Kim held an emergency national security meeting on Saturday, the first such since Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founding ruler, died in July 1994. Then, South Koreans scampered to the grocery stores to stock up on food.
To allay concerns, President Kim declared that South Korea's defense capability is strong, and it would take "due and sure action" if provoked. The South Korean military also stepped up its surveillance to a higher measure of military preparedness for the first time since 1982, when the North deployed attack aircraft near the border.
While the South Korean response has been somewhat dramatic, the events themselves are nothing special, and a new war seems unlikely. The military exercises conducted by North Korea were actually routine, but conducted in a place they shouldn't have been - in Panmunjom, the only diplomatic node on the most heavily fortified border on earth. Elsewhere along the DMZ, and throughout North Korea, no unusual troop activities were reported.
While the numbers of North Korean troops involved has been escalating daily, Jim Coles, spokesman for the UN Joint Command, says the situation "in the military context" is nowhere near the level of danger it was between 1975 and 1985, when there were "almost daily shooting incidents on the DMZ."
But downplaying the importance of the event may simply encourage North Korea to do bigger things to get attention. Pyongyang's overriding goal for the past two years has been to sign a separate peace treaty with the US, which at South Korea's behest has said that no treaty talks can exclude Seoul. This is simply the latest, though dramatic, step in their dismantling of the Armistice agreement that began with the North withdrawing in 1994, pressuring the Chinese to withdraw from the Military Armistice Commission Meeting in 1995, and then expelling Polish and Czech observers from Panmunjom.
The recent events are political theater trying to change America's mind. Analysts point out that when Pyongyang launched its unsuccessful and dramatic assassination attempts on two former South Korean presidents, it made no prior announcements.
But that doesn't mean that the troop incursions couldn't get out of control. Park Yong-ok, chief of the policy planning office of the Defense Ministry, was quoted by the Korea Times as saying "we expect armed provocation from the North down the road in view of the statements ... that war on the Korean peninsula is inevitable."
But Michael Breen, a North Korea expert in Seoul, sees little reason for the US not to talk with the North on peace, and predicts that at the presidential summit "Kim Young Sam will probably turn around and say that the US can talk to the North." This is because, he explains, in the long run the North's threats must be taken seriously because it may carry them out.
Last Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said Japan's long-stalled talks to normalize relations with North Korea would resume soon on an official level after acknowledging that secret meetings had been going on in Beijing last month. Mr. Hashimoto added, "A joint effort with South Korea is inevitable."
Others also tried to soothe the latest conflict.
Beijing, appearing not to back Pyongyang, simply restated its official policy - that the armistice agreement should be maintained until a peace treaty can be worked out - while Moscow, another of Pyongyang's old allies, urged restraint.
For years the US has been seeking to engage North Korea on its exports of dangerous weapons. On April 19, the US will begin missile negotiations with North Korea in Berlin and will want the North's cooperation.
The timing for North Korea's escalation of tensions makes sense coming before such talks, and because they've been souring since the US rejected its last proposal for peace treaty talks in late February.
In South Korea, the timing is rather propitious for Kim Young Sam's ruling party, which is expected to lose its majority in Thursday's parliamentary elections. Analysts say voters who are concerned about national security will rally behind it if they believe the ruling party's calls for national unity in the face of a threat from the North.
Park Jin, President Kim's spokesman, says South Korean politics has matured beyond the point that the excuse of external threat would be used to consolidate power, as was the habit of past military regimes, adding that the test of this crisis is to prove that a civilian government can weather one.
However, The Korea Times reported that the ruling party has called on opposition groups to cancel mass rallies, lest North Korea misinterpret their meaning. Lee Hoi-chang, the ruling party's top campaign manager, called on voters for "political stability" in this "time of national crisis."