Fragile Korean Detente Torpedoed by Sub Wreck A Failed Incursion Raises Tensions, with US Caught in Between

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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.

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. …