The United States military is puzzling over a proposal from North Korea that the North says will reduce tensions along its border with South Korea. Tensions are running high in Panmunjom -- the tiny cluster of buildings in the middle of Korea's 21/2-mile-wide demilitarized zone (DMZ), where the Korean armistice agreement was negotiated and is still monitored and enforced.
The North's proposal came last week, apparently in response to the first ``official'' exchange of gunfire in the area since the 1960s. That incident occurred last November during a defection.
A spokesman says the US military is not yet ready to comment on the proposal, beyond an official welcoming of it.
The South Korean government is plainly cool toward the idea, and diplomats in Seoul suspect the proposal is at best a clever publicity stunt and at worst a ploy to disarm US troops, leaving them exposed and unprotected. Still, the US cannot reject out of hand a proposal to reduce tensions in a place as dangerous as Panmunjom.
Panmunjom is an 875-yard-wide circle of land formally called the Joint Security Area. It is daily the scene of an intense war of nerves between guards of the UN Command, composed of US and South Korean soldiers and North Korean guards. Soldiers stand yards apart, facing an unpredictable enemy armed with loaded guns.
On Nov. 23, a Soviet student visiting the Northern half of the Joint Security Area suddenly bolted past North Korean guards and across the demarcation line. The North Koreans followed immediately, with weapons drawn and firing, apparently acting on standing orders. Some 30 more North Korean guards joined them shortly, firing automatic weapons. Both sides had earlier agreed to ban automatic weapons from the area.
A South Korean and an American GI first returned fire. The Korean was killed and the American was wounded. But their quick action slowed the North Koreans and allowed the Soviet student to escape to a swampy area out of fire. In the meantime, the UN Command called for reinforcements -- a quick reaction force that is supposed to respond within 90 seconds.
Although the US military has never officially acknowledged it, the system did not work that day. The quick reaction force was literally out to lunch, outside the DMZ, and it took nearly 20 minutes to arrive. When it did arrive with machine guns, mortars, and hand grenades, it overwhelmed the North Koreans, who immediately requested a cease-fire.
In retrospect, some US soldiers say the late arrival of the quick reaction force was a blessing in disguise. If they had arrived before the North Koreans settled into their positions, the number of North Korean casualties would have been far greater, making any face-saving settlement difficult. Unarmed North Koreans were allowed to enter the area and remove at least three dead and four wounded -- a bitter enough humiliation.
US military sources say they believe the North was completely unprepared for the South's overwhelming show of force that day. The North apparently assumed the automatic weapons they illegally kept in the Joint Security Area gave them an edge of superiority.
The incident reminded the world again of the constant danger at Panmunjom. But the tension there is far more intense than these occasional incidents indicate.
In fact, weapons were fired in the area the night before that incident, contradicting a UN Command statement that the last shooting there took place in the late 1960s.
On the night of Nov. 23, guards on the Southern side discovered that two North Korean guards had slipped across the line and were hiding in a low-lying grassy area. US soldiers say North Koreans frequently sneak across the line at night as part of an initiation rite -- a test of nerve for newly stationed guards.
A small party of US and South Korean soldiers quietly drew their weapons and entered the area to scare the North Koreans back. When a bird suddenly took flight, a startled US soldier fired his gun. In the confusion, the North Koreans ran back across the line to safety.
The North's new proposal calls for a reduction of guard forces within the Joint Security Area from 35 to 10, and those 10 guards would carry no weapons at all. The proposal also calls for reduction of security guards in the larger Military Affairs Commission headquarters area from 65 to 30, and removal of all military installations and automatic weapons.
The proposal, diplomats say, would require complete dismantling of the Quick Reaction Force as well as two fortified posts in the DMZ.
The North also called for a revival of Joint Observer Teams, composed of UN Command and North Korean guards, that would monitor removal of the installations. North Korea has for years refused to participate in the Joint Observer Team system, which was designed to investigate violations of the armistice agree-ment.
Diplomats here are tantalized by the possibility that dormant parts of the original armistice agreement might be revived, and that tension might at last ease in one of the world's most dangerous flash-points. In contrast to the agreement's original intention, the DMZ has been steadily fortified over the years.
Still, diplomats are cautious. ``The proposal would seriously reduce the US ability to respond to any incident,'' one says. Some question whether it makes sense to place US troops in such a forward position with no weapons to defend themselves. There is fear the inspection system would break down, since joint inspection systems with North Korea have never worked in the past.
The US will be under pressure to respond in a positive way though. For years it has asked North Korea to join in tension-reduction measures, and it wants to promote a good atmosphere for current negotiations between North and South Korea.