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US weighing N. Korean initiative to ease tension

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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.

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