October 26, 2004 in Nation/World

S. Korea on high alert

Sang-Hun Choe Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea’s military went into a high state of alert today, tightening roadblocks and traffic checks north of Seoul after finding signs of possible infiltration by North Korean agents, officials said.

The increased security along the roads between the tense border and Seoul came as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was visiting South Korea to discuss a strategy for restarting stalled talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

South Korean border guards found a hole in the wire fence that forms the southern boundary of the 2.5-mile wide Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas, said Brig. Gen. Hwang Joong-sun of the South Korean Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The 16- by 12-inch hole, which was cut through two layers of wire fence meters yards apart, was discovered early today near Yeoncheon, a border town 40 miles north of Seoul.

North Korea had no immediate comment, but it has a long history of staging border infiltration and other military provocations in apparent attempts to heighten tension and increase its leverage at times of crucial negotiations.

South Korea imposed “Jindogye-1” around Yeoncheon, the highest level of vigilance the military can issue before an actual sighting of a communist infiltrator, said another ministry spokesman, who also refused to be named.

Domestic media carried similar reports. Jindogye-1 reportedly requires military units to move troops for patrol and combat readiness. Soldiers also join police at checkpoints.

Ministry officials refused to discuss details of the measures taken today.

“We are investigating several possibilities. In the meantime, we are conducting our military operations in case there is an infiltration by an enemy,” Hwang said at a news conference. He refused to elaborate.

Police and soldiers tightened inspections in 54 checkpoints on the roads north of Seoul and established 16 temporary checkpoints, South Korea’s national news agency Yonhap reported.

The military also barred Yeoncheon farmers from working in fields near the border and posted sentries at foothills, Yonhap said.

Police already had boosted security around the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and the main South Korean government building where Powell was meeting senior South Korean officials. They were guarding against possible demonstrations by activists who opposed Powell’s trip, blaming President Bush for heightening tension with North Korea.

Roads between Seoul and the heavily fortified border are dotted with concrete tank traps and checkpoints and roadblocks. A large portion of South Korea’s 650,000-member military is amassed in the area, which North Korea used as the main corridor of invasion when it started the 1950-53 Korean War.

The war ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, so the two Koreas remain technically at war.

North Korea warned late Monday that prospects for talks on its nuclear weapons program were getting dimmer every day, blaming U.S.-led naval exercises that began today in Japanese waters, which it described as “ultimate war action.”

Participants in the nuclear talks – which also include China, Japan, South Korea and Russia – missed a September deadline for holding another round after North Korea refused to take part.

Powell has reiterated that Washington wants a diplomatic end to the dispute with Pyongyang. But North Korea said U.S. military maneuvers around the Korean Peninsula show that Washington “does not stand for a peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue.”

Ships from Japan, the United States, Australia and France began the exercises off Tokyo today designed to intercept weapons of mass destruction, part of President Bush’s Proliferation Security Initiative.

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