Heavily armed North Korean troops entered the sensitive buffer zone between North and South Korea on Sunday night for the third day in a row, violating the armistice that ended the Korean War, U.S. and South Korean officials said.
The actions by the North Koreans have heightened tensions on the heavily fortified border, where the Cold War has never thawed. But some American and South Korean officials have said the North, by thumbing its nose at the armistice agreement, appears to be making more of a diplomatic gambit than actually preparing for war.
“We view these activities of the past three evenings as a series of continuing serious armistice violations, but we see nothing that would warrant particular alarm,” said Jim Coles, a spokesman for the U.N. Command, which encompasses American, South Korean and other allied troops in South Korea. In Seoul, people appeared to be calm Sunday night.
In Washington, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, Lt. Cmdr. Karen Jeffries, called the latest incursion by North Korean troops “a serious violation of the armistice, though not unprecedented.” She said American officials had not seen an increase in military activity to suggest that North Korea was preparing for war.
Coles said between 150 and 180 North Korean troops entered the joint security area at the village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone at about 8:05 p.m. and appeared to be engaging in training exercises. They were carrying weapons including AK-47 assault rifles, rocketpropelled grenades, recoilless rifles and mortars, but left at 10:45 p.m. without firing a shot.
Officials at South Korea’s Ministry of Defense gave a similar account. But one of them said there was some speculation that the number of North Korean troops might have been as high as 400, based on the capacity of the six small trucks and six large trucks used to transport them.
The armistice agreement allows only 35 soldiers from either side from entering the joint security area, and they may carry only sidearms.
North Korea, which has violated the 1953 truce agreement in the past, has made little secret over the years that it wants to dismantle the pact and replace it with a peace treaty between itself and the United States, bypassing South Korea.
On Thursday, the day before the incursions at the demilitarized zone began, the secretive Communist nation declared that it would abandon its role in maintaining the demilitarized zone.
In response to the recent incursions, the U.N. Command has heightened its surveillance over North Korean actions. But Coles said that contrary to some reports, troops on the border had not gone to a higher level of combat readiness and that there had been no unusual troop movements on either side of the 151-mile-long border other than the Panmunjom incursions. “It’s business as usual, even on the North side,” he said.
Washington and Seoul are talking about stationing an American AWACS in South Korea or having the South Koreans buy one. AWACS, which stands for airborne warning-and-control system, is a plane with sophisticated equipment for monitoring a battlefield. Coles said such discussions had been going on for months.
South Koreans also say they hope that the meeting between President Clinton and President Kim Young Sam set for early next week on Cheju Island will send a sign to North Korea that the United States, which has 37,000 troops in this country, remains committed to defending South Korea.
At first the White House had said Clinton had no time to stop in South Korea on his trip to Japan and Russia. But after South Korean officials pressed for a visit, Clinton’s schedule was changed.