Tensions between North and South Korea have spiraled to a new high in the past week as the reclusive North Korean regime has poured harshly worded threats on their southern neighbor.
When a North Korean submarine ran aground off the eastern coast of South Korea disgorging 26 special forces agents Sept. 18, already-tense relations began to deteriorate further. Now, the North is threatening "revenge a thousand-fold" for the 22 men South Korea has killed so far in an ongoing manhunt.
Seoul has put its armed forces on alert and President Kim Young Sam, taking his hardest line yet, has suspended offers of food and economic aid to the North until it comes to the negotiating table. In a meeting last Friday, senior South Korean officials decided to increase security at major public facilities.
After last Tuesday's murder of a South Korean diplomat in charge of Northern intelligence in Vladivostok, Russia, the media have openly speculated that the North was behind the death. North Korea, in turn, has accused the South of "framing a despicable plot."
North Korea's threat of retaliation, issued last Wednesday and not accepted by the United Nations officer at the border in Panmunjom, was faxed to schools, politicians, and financial institutions here, part of the North's psychological warfare.
On Friday afternoon, North Korea sent more than 10 attack jets flying precariously close to the border, and on Saturday, the North's official news agency declared, "Blood should be paid for blood!"
Although South Koreans are used to such games and fiery rhetoric, the discovery of the submarine was evidence for many here that the North may be deadly serious, and that it has not dropped its ambition of reunifying the divided peninsula by force. North and South Korea have had an often-acrimonious truce since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Military analysts say the equipment found on the submarine and the high rank of its crew members indicates that the mission was not routine, as claimed by the North, and was perhaps meant to lay the groundwork for a larger military action.
Growing numbers of South Koreans who once weathered similar crises nonchalantly now worry that the crumbling regime in the North is playing its last card. Nho Ju-chull, a medical doctor, says when he heard about the latest threats of retaliation, "I felt in danger." Compared with other times, he says, "now it feels real."
President Kim began his term reaching out to the North by returning a prominent prisoner and donating 150,000 tons of rice. After the discovery of the submarine and last week's belligerence, many say these conciliatory overtures have failed.
"They know power comes from the barrel of a gun," says Woo Jae-sung, president of The Freedom Center, a South Korean think tank in Seoul.
Other analysts say that North Korea is becoming increasingly desperate. Millions of North Koreans are believed to be starving as recent floods have ravaged an already-inefficient agricultural system. While the North's economy and trade shrinks, rumors are emerging of discipline problems in the tightly controlled Stalinist society.
Some North Korea watchers here worry that the country may actually take military action if it misinterprets recent events in the South. They say the North would make a tragic miscalculation if it believed that any of the following were true:
*South Korean students, who espouse reunification with the North, are great supporters of North Korea.
*The South Korean government is divided and weak as it heads into next year's presidential election
*Morale is low in the South's military.
*America's once-solid alliance with the South is on shaky ground since the uncovering of a spy scandal involving a former South Korean in Washington.
*The Clinton administration fears a crisis during US presidential elections, and to keep the peace, would cave in to demands.
For now, the South can only prepare and wait. The ball is in North Korea's court.