Seoul strives to ease military tensions

By JONG-HEON LEE, UPI Correspondent  |  May 28, 2004 at 7:54 AM
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SEOUL, May 28 (UPI) -- South Korea hopes to fill a potential security vacuum created by the planned cutbacks of U.S. troops in the country by promoting reconciliation with its communist rival North Korea.

Seoul officials believe brisk inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation will help ease their Cold War hostilities and lead to a reduction of military tensions across the heavily fortified border. In theory, disarmament of both sides would be the best way to keep peace on the peninsula without U.S. troops as a deterrent force.

President Roh Moo-hyun, in his first reaction to a U.S. decision to re-deploy thousands of its troops from South Korea to Iraq last week, called for his Cabinet ministers to make more efforts to improve ties with the North to seek tension-reduction measures.

This week's high-level military talks between the two Koreas were widely considered as a test of the North's willingness to join hands with the South to ease military tensions on the world's last Cold War frontier.

The meeting, held at a North Korean mountain resort just north of the border on Wednesday, raised hope of military cooperation because it was the first talks between the uniformed generals since the Korean War. North Korea had long refused to treat South Korea as a security negotiating partner, insisting that the South was merely a "puppet of the U.S. imperialists."

At the talks, however, both sides fell short of producing concrete steps on easing military tensions. They avoided discussing sensitive issues, such as the standoff over the North's nuclear weapons drive and pulling back of long-range artillery and tactical missiles from the heavily armed border.

South Korea suggested that a military hot line phone connection be established between the two sides as part of efforts to prevent accidental clashes in the world's most fortified buffer zone.

It also proposed that the two navies adopt a standard radio frequency and signaling system to improve communication on the high seas to avoid clashes near the maritime border.

North Korea did not made any response to the South's proposal, and instead it countered that both sides should discuss ways to reduce provocative propaganda directed across the border. The one-day discussions stretched into the afternoon but ended with no major progress.

But the unprecedented military talks were hailed as a significant move to reduce military tensions on the peninsula as the two sides quickly agreed to meet again on June 3 at Sorak Mountain in South Korea.

"The government is pushing for general-level talks to be held in a regular format at least once a month to produce substantial measures to reduce tensions," a defense official said.

Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, Seoul's point man on North Korea, expressed optimism about the military talks, saying Pyongyang has reasons to ease military tension so lucrative inter-Korean economic projects can move forward. "North Korea needs an easing of tension at least in areas affected by commercial projects," he said.

The two Koreas are working to set up an industrial park in town of Kaesong just north of the border for the South's companies to operate using the North's cheap labor. On the east coast, the North wants to draw more cross-border tourists to the Mount Kumgang resort.

President Roh also voiced hopes of progress in the military talks, saying there should be tangible progress in the talks to lay the groundwork to easing military tension and increasing trust between the two Koreas.

The two Koreas held their first defense ministers' talks in September 2000. But they failed to open a second round of talks because North Korea had dismissed Seoul's repeated proposals for another meeting.

In recent years, South and North Korean Navy vessels have clashed at the disputed sea border of the Northern Limit Line, around which lucrative blue crab beds lie. Tensions have risen sharply in that zone for the May-June and October-November crab seasons, when North Korean fishing boats often move into the contested waters in search of crab beds.

The NLL, a U.N.-imposed Korean maritime border established after the Korean War, has served as a neutral zone to avoid possible armed clashes. But the North says that it does not recognize the border, insisting on its own sea border far south of the NLL and including South Korean islands.

Analysts warn that new skirmishes could derail fragile efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the North's nuclear dispute and bring a permanent peace on the peninsula.

"The establishment of high-level channel between the two militaries is necessary to prevent accidental clashes and reduce tensions on the peninsula, and to ease security jitters in the South in the wake of cutbacks of U.S. military presence," a Unification Ministry official said.

But the two Koreas still have a long way to go to build up mutual trust. The North's 1.1 million-member People's Army, the world's fifth-largest military force, has nearly twice the number of South Korean's military. Most of them have been deployed near the border.

Under North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's "army-first" policy, the military serves as the backbone of Kim's totalitarian rule. The country spends about 30 percent of its gross domestic product on the military.

According to Seoul's top military intelligence official, North Korea has been operating an elite military unit specializing in hacking into South Korean computer networks in order to get secret information from the South's agencies and stage cyber propaganda against the South.

"Following orders from its leader Kim Jong-Il, North Korea has been operating a crack unit specializing in computer hacking and strengthening its cyber-terror ability," Song Young-keun, commanding general of the Defense Security Command, said in an address on Thursday.

Kurt M. Campbell, senior analyst at the Washington-based International Security Center for Strategic & International Studies, warned that the U.S. decision to pull some 10 percent of its troops from South Korea can lead to North Korea's miscalculation.

"There is anxiety that a deeply unpredictable leadership in the North might mistake this (U.S. military alignment) move as a sign of disinterest or disinclination -- similar in some respects to the famous Secretary of State Dean Acheson omission that led to the Korean War," he said in a contribution to Seoul's Chosun Ilbo daily on Friday.

On Jan. 12, 1950, just five months before the North invaded the South, Acheson indicated that South Korea was outside the U.S. "defensive perimeter" Asia. This seemed to indicate that the United States would keep out of a local Korean conflict.

Acheson later rejected this charge as "specious," because he had not included Australia or New Zealand either, places the United States would fight to defend, and the Truman administration's first mutual defense agreement was with South Korea.

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