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Flare-up in Asian blame games

Despite small diplomatic successes, conflicts escalate between old war

As the West calms down over Kosovo, things are getting tense in the East.

A maritime standoff between North Korea and South Korea erupted into violence June 15, as gunboats from the two countries exchanged fire in the Yellow Sea.

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And thousands of miles across Asia, amid razor-edged Himalayan peaks, Indian and Pakistani troops continued fighting in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

In many ways the two conflicts are particular to the countries involved, but together they demonstrate the enduring volatility of Asia. Some Asian leaders, it seems, cannot resist pursuing political advantage through military exploits.

Or it may be that these leaders are merely unable to restrain their militaries from resorting to violence in uncertain times.

Both fights make the US anxious. President Clinton telephoned Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on June 14, according to the latter's spokesman. Several governments have discouraged any more escalation in a conflict that has already included attacks by fighter jets and helicopters, the steady use of artillery, ground combat - and hundreds of casualties. Last year India and Pakistan both demonstrated that they have nuclear weapons, the main reason to worry about escalation.

The Korean peninsula hosts the world's most militarized border - the cold-war-era dividing line between North and South - and some 37,000 US troops help guarantee the security of South Korea, a US ally. National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley says the administration is "very concerned" about the Yellow Sea incident.

But despite this clash, the talking continues. The two nations have not cancelled plans for high-ranking officials to meet on June 21.

There is nothing unprecedented about a provocative and militaristic outburst from North Korea - such actions take place every year or so. In 1996, a submarine used to transport North Korean commandos was discovered on South Korean shores, initiating a manhunt that left 37 people dead, 24 of them North Korean intruders.

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The events of June 15 came with more warning. Every summer North Korean fishing boats in search of crab venture south into waters claimed by both Koreas. They normally retreat if challenged by South Korea. But this year the fishermen, accompanied by patrol boats, have been unusually persistent and South Korean warships have responded with unusual vigor, ramming several North Korean vessels June 11. North Korea said one of its ships was sunk and three others damaged in the June 15 clash, which both countries blame on the other.

Korea-watchers in Tokyo aren't sure what to make of these events. Katsumi Sato, who runs the private Modern Korea Institute here, says the violence is evidence of the deterioration of stability. "If things get worse, the North Koreans may become even more provocative," he warns. The isolated state has experienced severe food shortages in recent years, the result of adverse weather and a decrepit Communist economy. Leader Kim Jong Il rules only by the grace of the military, say analysts.

Whenever the country seems to be embarking on a friendlier or more cooperative course with the outside world, it seems, a bizarre bit of aggression takes place - perhaps because of North Korean military discomfort with diplomacy. The clash in the Yellow Sea follows a visit to North Korea by Clinton envoy William Perry and precedes a visit from a former premier of Japan.

But President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea may also be placating hard-line critics of his "sunshine" policy of engagement toward the North. Instead of gunboat diplomacy, Mr. Kim may be using gunboats to protect his diplomatic initiatives.

In South Asia, leaders of both India and Pakistan may see political benefits in the fighting in Kashmir. Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's prime minister, presides over a ramshackle economy and an increasingly autocratic regime. A war is at least distracting. Indian premier Vajpayee's party, a sometimes fiery group that aspires to recast secular India as a "Hindu nation," emphasizes the need for India to assert itself militarily.

KASHMIR is populated mainly by Muslims whose Hindu ruler opted to join India when Pakistan was created in 1947. Pakistan fought for the territory then, putting roughly a third under its control.

In the late 1980s, Muslim militants in the Indian portion began a guerrilla campaign variously seeking independence, merger with Pakistan, or a referendum. India asserts that Pakistan is behind the guerrilla movement, while Pakistan admits only to offering moral and political support. Independent analysts say the Pakistanis do indeed provide arms and training.

A month ago guerrillas from the Pakistani side began incursions into Indian-held regions, taking over strategic points. India says Pakistan's military is responsible and US analysts agree that such an operation requires planning and support; Pakistan says the intruders are "freedom fighters."

Unlike the Koreans, the South Asians seem unwilling to keep talking as they shoot. The Kashmir conflict comes at a time of relative friendliness between the Indian and Pakistani governments. But Vajpayee said June 14, following failed discussions, that further talks would be pointless unless Pakistan "withdraws its troops and militants occupying positions inside the Indian territory."

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