As US Secretary of State Colin Powell readied for a three-nation jaunt through Asia this weekend, ending with the inauguration Tuesday of new South Korean president Roh Myun-hoon, North Korea sent a fighter jet for a two-minute romp into South Korean airspace.
The incursion above the Yellow Sea, rebuffed by South Korean jets, is unusual. Generally, it is North Korean naval vessels that penetrate the tip of the Yellow Sea in tests of will with the South.
The MiG-19 jet probe, coming just days after the North threatened to pull out of the armistice that has governed the two Koreas for 50 years, is regarded here as yet another in an escalating set of provocations designed to push the US into one-on-one talks.
Analysts are concerned that North Korea's enigmatic president, Kim Jong Il, could decide to launch a stream of minor but increasingly harmful military actions that will test the patience of US and South Korean forces. Such actions could exacerbate an already sensitive moment in US-South Korean relations, not to mention in the Bush administration's efforts to disarm Iraq.
"If this is the beginning of a set of incursions, there is the potential that things will get worse and worse, until the North feels it has the US's attention, and force a process of dialogue," argues Scott Snyder of the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation in Seoul.
Just after the jet penetrated the South's airspace, the North Korean Red Cross issued a message of condolence to the South Korean Red Cross for the loss of some 120 people in a devastating subway fire earlier this week in the city of Taegu. The incident, reportedly caused by a mentally disturbed man, was a shock to the nation, which is unused to random acts of violence. The North's condolence was also reportedly a first.
The Yellow Sea area where the MiG flew is the most loosely defined point in the armistice line - drawn unilaterally by the US - that has been observed since the Korean War ended in a 1953 truce. The North does not recognize the line, but it has not openly challenged it until recent years. Last July, on the eve of the World Cup finals cohosted by the South, a Northern ship fired on a Southern one in a clash that left several seamen dead on both sides.
"When they want to test our strength, they use the Yellow Sea as the place to do it," says Shim Jae Hoon, a Seoul columnist.
Secretary Powell will visit Japan, China, and then South Korea on a trip that figures to be weighted heavily with discussions on Iraq and the North Korean nuclear conundrum. Since October, Kim Jong Il has ended an agreement not to reprocess plutonium fuel rods, kicked out UN nuclear inspectors from his Yongbyon reactor facility, and withdrawn from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. And in recent weeks, he has greatly intensified anti-US hate rhetoric inside his regime. For the Dear Leader's birthday party last Sunday, for example, North Koreans were urged to "burn with hatred" for the US; North leaders gave speeches suggesting the only obstacle to unification in Korea was the presence of US forces on the peninsula.
What Kim of the North wants, experts say, are talks with the US - part of its bid for recognition by the most powerful player in the international community and the backbone of the military force in the South. The White House has said it will not hold talks under threat of "nuclear blackmail."
Incoming president Roh Moo-hyun was elected in December on what seemed to be, in part, a wave of sentiment against US forces. He has strongly supported outgoing President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North, which stresses dialogue and diplomacy to end the Korean divide.
Since taking office, the Bush administration has been more skeptical of the Sunshine approach, and more critical of the North, than either the Clinton administration or the Kim administration here - at one point labeling the North a member of the "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran. Such statements were used as fodder for anti-US feelings among an increasingly proud and assertive younger generation of South Koreans.
How the Bush White House and the Roh Blue House will work together in the midst of the nuclear and diplomatic crisis is a significant question for coming months. Sources in Seoul say the Bush team is far more willing to "give [Mr. Roh] room" than some among the incoming South Korean team seem to be aware of.
On Thursday, for example, Roh reacted to news first reported in The New York Times describing White House planning for sanctions against North Korea using a variety of finely tuned measures. The sanctions would be imposed by the UN Security Council, something North Korea has said is an act tantamount to war. Roh spoke against any plans for sanctions on North Korea; he added that South Korea can "express a different view if doing so will prevent a war."
Yet in recent weeks the US has not officially advocated sanctions, and sources here argue that planning for sanctions is something that would be carried out routinely in Washington and is not in itself determinative of future actions.
Sources say that Powell's visit will in part address these issues.
Still, as one senior South Korean observer worried here Thursday after the North Korean jet incursion: "I think there is a drift apart between two allies [US and South Korea] and the way they see things. To the US, trying to maintain security through an armistice, this kind of activity looks threatening. To the South Korean government, trying to coax the North through dialogue, it does not. I'm worried that things are getting sour."