North Korea's threat Tuesday to abandon the 1953 Korean armistice, is an unexpected step that will further isolate Kim Jong Il's regime. It is also the first time in the current crisis that the North has openly provoked the citizens of South Korea, analysts say.
During recent months of nuclear contretemps between the North and the international community, especially the US, Pyongyang has been careful to maintain a nonaggressive posture toward South Korea - allowing tour groups, new railroad links, and regular diplomatic exchanges. Yet to cancel an agreement that governs the rules and oversight of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) - where troops on both sides are often on high alert - is a blow to the symbolic framework by which forces on both sides operate.
"The armistice is the basis for stability on the peninsula, and this will be a problem for Seoul, once the people of the South think about this more," says Don Oberdorfer, author of "Two Koreas." "This will worry Seoul more than anything else the North may say."
Scotching the armistice, signed by the US (for the UN), China, and North Korea after the Korean War, is yet another example of Kim Jong Il's unpredictability, experts say. The move is likely to notch up tension along the heavily armed divide, known as the last outpost of the cold war. South Korea's capital Seoul, is located some 30 miles from the DMZ, and is held hostage by several hundred thousand artillery tubes and forward deployed North Korean troops. A North Korean withdrawal would keep forces on the South Korean border guessing about any future aggressive behavior.
The Military Armistice Commission (MAC), made up of soldiers from both the UN and North Korea, has over the years mediated disputes, been a forum for passing messages, and provided a means for military officers to communicate. "In good days and bad days, the MAC has operated to make sure there are no misunderstandings, or at least fewer misunderstandings," points out Mr. Oberdorfer.
In a statement delivered at Panmunjom Tuesday, a representative of the Korean People's Army stated that North Korea "will be left no option but to take a decisive step to abandon its commitment to implement ... the agreement." The North cited a US military buildup, naval blockade, and "huge forces in and around the Korean peninsula" as a rationale for the move, along with the US "nuclear racket."
US officials deny any plan to blockade the North. Last week the IAEA voted to refer North Korea to the UN Security Council, after the North kicked out nuclear inspectors and admitted to having a secret uranium nuclear program.
BUT with Washington devoting most of its time to the Iraq question and unable so far to achieve its goal of an effective multi-nation response to North Korea's threats, the US has for now dropped the idea of sanctions.
A senior US official told reporters here last week that, other than a single carrier deployment to Japan, there were no plans to add US forces in the region. "No other steps have been taken to give the US other options in the region," the official said.
South Korean leaders were quick to say that canceling the armistice would not bring the peninsula closer to war. "My conclusion is that I believe the danger of war on the Korean Peninsula is slight - in fact, nonexistent," said outgoing President Kim Dae Jung, in comments issued from the president's office. Mr. Kim steps down next week, after a five-year term that brought the first rapprochement between the two Koreas.
In recent years, many South Koreans, especially younger generations that did not experience the bitter war years, have taken for granted a 50-plus-year peace, and many seem confident that no hostility will occur from fellow Koreans across the military divide.
Because the Korean War never ended in a peace agreement, the two sides are still technically at war. In recent years, according to US military sources, the armistice has been increasingly weakened by the North's evident dissatisfaction with its terms. Several years ago, the North kicked out two neutral observers called for - a Polish and Czech unit - presumably feeling that after the cold war, there was less affinity between the former Warsaw Pact actors and the rigidly Stalinist North.
Though the North Korean foreign minister was in Beijing Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue refused to comment on whether North Korea had consulted China about the proposed armistice withdrawal. China, considered a potential major player in a peace agreement, has kept its counsel on the nuclear dilemma with its neighbor. Experts say that in the early-90s nuclear crisis, China played an important role in cooling tensions and setting up a diplomatic solution through contacts with Kim Il Sung, Kim Jung Il's father, but has never openly taken credit for its assistance.