SEOUL — A DAY after a routine civil-defense drill halted traffic and fighter jets roared over the resulting quiet of South Korea's cities, a new proposal to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula was announced.
Forty-three years after North Korea, South Korea, China, and the US sat down to negotiate and sign a truce ending the 1950-53 Korean War, President Clinton and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Young Sam, proposed that the four parties get together again to discuss a more lasting peace.
In a press conference April 16 following a meeting on the semi-tropical island of Cheju, the two leaders said there would be no preconditions for dialogue, and that it should begin "as soon as possible."
Mr. Clinton also reaffirmed the American-South Korean alliance - a show of solidarity designed to make clear to the North that peace talks that did not include the South were out of the question. But he said that the ultimate burden of peacemaking rested on the two Koreas.
"North Korea has said it wants peace. This is our proposal to achieve it," Clinton said. "We hope and expect Pyongyang to take it seriously."
The idea of four-way talks was first brought up in Seoul two months ago. Taking an optimistic lead from North Korea's overtures for talks in late February, the allies have proposed their version of a framework to accomplish what the North Koreans say they want.
But Yang Sung Chul, a member of the biggest opposition party here, says that yesterday's proposal was neither new nor special. "No matter what we say, North Korea won't do anything unless they feel like it."
The proposal was relayed to China and North Korea a few days ago, the presidents said, but they didn't expect a response immediately. Beijing is expected to respond favorably, as the peace talks may be a bright spot on the recent rocky road with the US. A spokesman in Beijing said yesterday that China wanted to play a constructive role, but that Beijing was still weighing a decision on whether to back an offer.
Many analysts, however, wonder what would happen if China decided to support the proposal and the North didn't, saying the situation would further isolate and alienate a reclusive North.
Meanwhile, Russia announced that it should have a role in negotiations. Over the weekend, Russia said they had succeeded in "budging" North Korea during a diplomatic visit, but that Pyongyang still believed in "the inevitability of war."
The Clinton-Kim proposal comes after a series of steps taken by the North that created a feeling of impending crisis on the peninsula. The steps were seen by many analysts as an attempt by Pyongyang to force direct talks with America.
In the past month, North Korea has announced it would no longer honor the terms of the Military Armistice Agreement, and then over a three-day period sent an increasing number of troops into the demilitarized zone. The movements violated the Armistice and emphasized the continuing military threat on the peninsula.
The US, which is scheduled to begin talks soon with North Korea - on its missile sales to the Middle East, and on American soldiers missing in action in the Korean War - is expected to feel less pressure from Seoul if the South Koreans are given a chance to deal directly with Pyongyang as well. In the past, Seoul bristled at being excluded while Japan and the US improved their relations with the North.
If Seoul gets direct contact with Pyongyang, they will be less wary of others having it.
The summit statements emphasized that the only thing Washington wouldn't talk to Pyongyang about separately is the Armistice. Ostensibly, what the US does outside of Armistice talks could facilitate progress - whether it really has a freer hand will depend on how much the North wants to include the South in discussions.
Before the summit, South Korea had two conditions that the North had to meet for talks to happen: it must stop slandering Seoul, and talks must be held somewhere on the peninsula.
Woo Jae-sung, head of the Freedom Center, a government think tank noted the importance of dropping such preconditions, and starting the dialogue with a "blank slate."
Whether North Korea drops its demand - that Seoul must apologize for not sending condolences after the death of Kim Il Sung - remains to be seen.