TOKYO — North Korea has long been known for unpredictability. This week the country seems to have lived up to its reputation with a vengeance.
The discovery of a submarine full of North Korean agents attempting to infiltrate the South is the largest known covert mission in South Korea since the 1960s. And it contrasts starkly with increasing signs of openness from the autocratic, one-party regime in Pyongyang. North Korea has been reaching out recently - appealing for food aid and cooperating with international efforts to neutralize its potentially dangerous nuclear program.
As recently as Sunday, North Korean officials were welcoming international investors to a trade zone they want to develop near the country's borders with China and Russia. They signed agreements worth $282 million in investments and discussed deals worth another $840 million.
But by yesterday evening, South Korean authorities had killed 18 alleged North Korean infiltrators and detained one. Eleven apparently died in a suicide pact, while the others were killed in what the South Korean Defense Ministry said were shootouts with its forces.
The ministry, citing information from the apprehended North Korean, says more than 20 infiltrators disembarked from a submarine that ran aground on South Korea's eastern shore early Wednesday morning. Thousands of South Korean soldiers and police are trying to find the few who remain at large.
A search of the craft turned up indications it was on an infiltration mission. The North Korean detainee has reportedly told investigators that the submarine ran aground after developing engine trouble.
The incident, like other flare-ups in the uneasy armistice between the two Koreas, has brought on some tension. Yesterday a North Korean officer refused to accept a letter of protest from the United Nations command that keeps the peace on the world's most heavily armed border. Other than the refusal, North Korea has been silent on the submarine incident.
South Korean President Kim Young Sam has placed his military on alert and called the incident a "military provocation."
"Despite food shortages, the reason why North Korea sent armed infiltrators is that they still have not given up their ambition to reunify Korea by force," Mr. Kim said. North Korea is experiencing widespread crop failures caused by flooding.
The timing of the incident caused immediate speculation about discord within the North Korean regime. "The hard-liners of North Korea may want to deter" the efforts at winning more investment, says Lhee Ho-jeh, a political scientist at Korea University in Seoul.
He adds that the apparent infiltration will harden attitudes in the South. "This incident gives strength to the hardliners," he says.
A Western diplomat in Seoul, speaking on condition of anonymity, says most North Korea watchers have learned to take events like the submarine incident in stride. "The professionals in the business say these things happen periodically ... and it shouldn't detract from the what we're trying to achieve in terms of getting a dialogue going," the diplomat says.
But it seems clear that the incident has irritated the South Koreans, who are key players in the multilateral arrangements in which North Korea has begun to participate.
Seoul, for instance, is providing most of the funding for two nuclear reactors that an international consortium has promised to give North Korea. The new reactors will be less likely to produce nuclear material suitable for making weapons.
In South Korea, says the diplomat, "There's a lot of anger, and it's growing as more details come out."
Some anger has been aimed at South Korea's government. Commentators have attacked the military for a lack of vigilance, noting the submarine and some of its intruders were found by civilians.
The military is apparently taking no chances with the North Koreans, having killed 18 of them. The Defense Ministry says the intruders had fired on South Korean forces. Three North Koreans were reportedly killed yesterday as they attempted to return to the North.