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Fragile Korean Detente Torpedoed by Sub Wreck

A failed incursion raises tensions, with US caught in between

The landmark accord negotiated by the Clinton administration to end North Korea's nuclear-arms program and nudge it toward peaceful reunification with South Korea turns two-years-old this month. But there will be no celebrations.

The initiative to end the world's last cold-war conflict has been dealt a serious setback by the infiltration last month into South Korea by submarine-borne North Korean agents.

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United States and South Korean officials and independent analysts doubt the crisis will kill the agreement and escalate into hostilities that would embroil the US, which maintains 37,000 troops in South Korea. But they agree that it will take some time before tensions cool sufficiently to allow a resumption of US-led diplomacy aimed at weaning the communist North out of decades of hostile, self-imposed isolation.

Asserts US Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord: "In the current climate, it cannot be business as usual."

"There is going to be a tough period of cold, nondialogue with the North," says Donald Gregg, US ambassador to South Korea during the Bush administration. "The best we can hope for is no violent incidents."

Chang Ho Lee,deputy chief of South Korea's mission in Washington, says Pyongyang must admit to the "crime" of sending the submarine and "apologize" to Seoul before the normalization process can resume. "And they should guarantee that this will not happen again," he says.

There appears scant chance of a resolution anytime soon. Tensions on the divided peninsula are running high, with both sides making bellicose threats. South Korean outrage has been fueled by the murders of three civilians allegedly by the North Koreans, who Seoul accuses of being on a spying mission when their submarine went aground last month. Pyongyang retorts that the submarine strayed off-course due to engine trouble and vows to retaliate for the South's killing of 22 of its infiltrators.

The situation has been exacerbated by the arrest on espionage charges by North Korea of an American citizen and the start of annual US-South Korean war games, denounced by Pyongyang as a prelude to an invasion. The frictions will be aggravated further by a US-engineered vote expected today in the UN Security Council on a resolution expressing concern over the North Korean intrusion.

The US and South Korea have made it clear that they are anxious to keep the situation from escalating too far. During a visit last week by Mr. Lord to Seoul, they reaffirmed their commitments to a US proposal for negotiations with North Korea and China on a permanent peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

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Moreover, the two allies stressed that they remain bound to the so-called Framework Agreement the US and North Korea reached in October 1994. For the time being, however, the agreement is in limbo.

The accord's cornerstone is the construction in North Korea of two electricity-generating light-water nuclear reactors. North Korea agreed to abandon a clandestine atomic-weapons program in return for the reactors, from which it is extremely hard to extract weapons-grade material.

Seoul is supplying and largely financing the $5 billion project, but it has forced a delay by declining to send site surveyors to North Korea. It cites concerns for the surveyors' safety in the aftermath of the submarine incursion. But it has another motive: With polls due next year, proceeding with the plant construction now would be politically damaging for South Korea's ruling Democratic Liberal Party.

There has been other fallout from the incursion. International humanitarian aid for North Korea, which is suffering severe economic problems and food shortages, has been suspended as has a US-North Korean search for the remains of American servicemen missing in the Korean War.

The crisis has also had unintended consequences, including exposing political frictions between the US and South Korea.

Instead of condemning North Korea for the submarine incursion, Secretary of State Warren Christopher exhorted both sides to show restraint. The lack of a forceful US response set off alarms in South Korea, where it was seen as a sign of a shift by Washington from a policy of unstinting support to one of going soft on North Korea.

Lord's three-day visit to Seoul was in part intended to repair the damage wrought by Mr. Christopher's statement. Before departing for home on Saturday, he asserted that "there has been no rift in our alliance."

Mr. Lee, however, concedes there has been "some suspicion and a lack of trust about the US attitude." But the diplomat insists that Washington and Seoul are in full accord on their policy toward Pyongyang.

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