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Border calm as tensions rise on Korean peninsula

The thin North Korean guard shuffles around in his dull green uniform, a pair of binoculars fixed to his eyes, while a squad of South Koreans in black helmets glare back silently from their positions across the border.

world Updated: May 30, 2009 20:49 IST

The thin North Korean guard shuffles around in his dull green uniform, a pair of binoculars fixed to his eyes, while a squad of South Koreans in black helmets glare back silently from their positions across the border.

For more than a half century, this divided hamlet has been the front-line of a fragile truce that ended the three-year Korean War. Intimidation has been honed to a fine art in Panmunjom. But while tensions this week rose to their highest level in years, there was an odd sense of calm in the Demilitarized Zone.

Skirmishes have a tendency to escalate quickly in Panmunjom. An effort by American soldiers to trim a poplar tree led to an ax fight with North Koreans in 1976 that left two dead. An attempt by a Russian to defect across the demarkation line in the 1980s sparked an extended shootout.

But no incidents have been reported in Panmunjom recently, despite North Korea's nuclear test, a week of missile launchings and repeated tirades from Pyongyang that it will no longer abide by the 1953 accord that ended the war.

"We are always at a high level of readiness, but nothing has changed recently," said US Army Sgt. Brant Walker, part of the small contingent of U.S. troops that are based along the heavily fortified border. "You wouldn't think it would be, with North Korea right there, but it's very relaxed."

Outside of the Demilitarized Zone, however, concerns swirled around the North as spy satellites spotted signs that it may be preparing to transport a long-range missile to a test launch site, South Korean officials said on Saturday.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued his harshest warning to the North since it carried out an underground nuclear test on Monday.

"We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in Asia or on us," he told a regional defense meeting in Singapore. He said the North's nuclear program was a "harbinger of a dark future," but wasn't yet a direct threat.

North Korea's neighbors have reason to be anxious. North Korea has 1.2 million troops, and as many as 80,000 commandos trained to infiltrate the South. In April, it launched a rocket that experts say indicates it has the capability of hitting Japan or possibly the United States with conventional warheads. And it has now demonstrated twice that it can detonate a nuclear device. Memories of the Korean War are also frightening. At the outset of the war, which began 59 years ago next month, North Korean armor rolled across the border, catching the South by surprise. An emergency US defense effort initially crumbled, and the North's forces almost succeeded in pushing the Americans off the tip of the peninsula.

This time, concerns are focused on a clash at sea. The North has threatened to retaliate with its military if any of its ships are stopped and searched for banned weapons. Deadly naval skirmishes occurred in 1999 and 2002 off disputed shores along Korea's western coast.

But despite all of its bluster, some experts say Pyongyang is playing a calculated game and is aware of the danger to the survival of its own leadership if it goes too far and provokes a full-on response from the much-stronger militaries that surround it. "The North won't start a game that it knows it will lose," said Baek Seung-joo, a North Korea expert at Seoul's state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

He and other experts said North Korea is using the nuclear test to get the international community's attention and to milk for its domestic propaganda value, instilling its populace with pride in their country's military might.

North Korea has said it does not fear sanctions, which are being mulled by the U.N. Security Council, and is so isolated already that it is used to fending for itself, although the cost has been deep poverty.

Provoking a war, however, would involve a different calculus. "North Korea is so impoverished it has not been able to renew arms that are outdated and degraded," said Atsuhito Isozaki, a North Korean expert at Japan's private Keio University. "Its conventional military is no match for those of Japan, South Korea or the US"

Isozaki said the North's shortage of oil has largely incapacitated its conventional military, which he said poses "virtually no threat" to neighboring countries although it is the world's fourth-largest.

If the North were to unleash its military, it would face a much stronger set of opponents than it did in 1950.

South Korea, where military service is mandatory, has roughly 670,000 in its armed forces. The United States has 28,000 troops in Korea, and another 50,000 in Japan.

US fighters can reach North Korean airspace from their Japanese bases in about 30 minutes, and two US navy destroyers are "tethered" to the North, meaning they are either in the Sea of Japan or on call to be there quickly if needed.

The United States also now has a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier permanently based in Japan, and has a squadron of F-22 stealth jets the most advanced in the Air Force deployed to the southern island of Okinawa.

Still, North Korea continues to pour what little resources it has on its own troops, described by the authoritative Web site GlobalSecurity.org as "North Korea's largest employer, purchaser, and consumer, the central unifying structure in the country, and the source of power for the regime."

Analysts trying to read Pyongyang's motives believe leader Kim Jong Il may be using the recent show of military brinksmanship as a means of asserting his strength and smoothing the way for a transfer of power to one of his sons, continuing the dynasty that he inherited from his father.

If that is the case, he does not want too much upheaval. "Going to a war is a political decision," said Cha Du-hyeogn, another researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. "In my opinion, the North may only stage limited provocation. It's very difficult for the country to choose to go to war in the current situation."

Cha noted that Kim also is aware that China and Russia crucial backers in the Korean War would not assist his army in the event of a new war on the peninsula.