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New jitters on the DMZ North Korea: Economic desperation leads to risky brinkmanship.


THE 1953 ARMISTICE in Korea has kept the peace for 43 years. North Korea just broke it, unilaterally ending joint supervision of the 2.5-mile demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the armies of the North from those of South Korea and the United States. If the shadowy rulers of Pyongyang merely wanted to get attention from Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, they rTC managed.

The action follows decisions of Japan and the United States that they will not continue food shipments to the rice-short North. It precedes April 11 elections in the South. It coincides with a large anti-government protest by students in South Korea over the death of a student anti-government demonstrator in custody. And it comes while the trials of two former dictator-presidents of South Korea demonstrate to the dictators of North Korea what fate might await them from a Germany-style unification.

Nothing illustrates the change in world politics since past Korean crises better than Moscow's reaction. Russia, which as the Soviet Union supported North Korea, now urges it to show restraint. Russia craves private investments from South Korea.

China, also, is no longer a protector of North Korea. Yet the rulers of Pyongyang no doubt noticed the tensions between South Korea and Japan over territorial water claims, hoping to catch Seoul without friends.

The measures that Pyongyang has taken increase the possibility of conflict by accident at the DMZ. Some 37,000 U.S. troops nearby would be instantly involved. North Korean officials have predicted war.

These are nervous times for the regime in Pyongyang. It is some mixture of old generals who served the late Kim Il Sung and his odd, middle-age son, Kim Jong Il, who may or may not be the new dictator.

They can no longer cope, economically and diplomatically, and appear at the end of their tether. Survival of their Communist regime may not be within their power, but touching off a destructive war is.

Pub Date: 4/06/96

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