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U.S. Russia Take Different Approaches to Korea

Washington, April 10 (RFE/RL) - A senior Russian official arrives in North Korea today against a backdrop of bellicose rhetoric in Pyongyang, defensive posturing in Seoul and a studied calm in Washington over the latest crisis between the two Koreas.

Deputy Russian foreign minister Alexander Panov says he has a proposal he hopes will be acceptable to the North Koreans and will remain in Pyongyang until Friday to discuss it.

Before leaving Moscow Tuesday, Panov said the best option for defusing tensions over the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, would be to convene an international conference to build up trust on the divided peninsula.

A U.S. State Department official who spoke with RFE/RL on condition of anonymity says the conference idea is not new and the U.S. is not enthusiastic about it. He says Russia made the suggestion some time ago.

The official says the long-standing U.S. response is that the problems are between north and south Korea and those two sides should start talking to each other and settle their concerns directly.

"It is our position that peace on the peninsula can be maintained only through direct contacts between the parties," he said.

Russia is one of 30 countries along with China and the United States, that were asked by the South Korean government to help persuade North Korea to abide by the 1953 Armistice Agreement.

Last Thursday, the government in Pyongyang announced it would no longer abide by the terms of the Armistice and in direct violation of its provisions sent heavily armed troops into the zone three times -- Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday night.

The State Department said Tuesday there have been no incursions since then.

But the official rhetoric in Pyongyang remains at a high pitch with the government daily newspaper saying Tuesday the country is on the brink of war and that "all soldiers of the People's Army are full of fighting spirit to smash enemies at one stroke."

The U.S. official says Washington views the situation as being serious but is not unduly concerned.

He says this kind of rhetoric in North Korea has been heard before and that North Korea has been trying to undermine the Armistice Agreement for several years.

The official dismisses speculation that attributes the latest effort variously to imminent economic collapse in North Korea, a continuing power struggle following the death of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in 1994, or possible efforts by Pyongyang to influence the voting in South Korea's parliamentary elections to be held on Thursday.

The U.S. State Department official says the latest round of violations of the military armistice are part of a pattern of behavior evident for several years.

He says North Korea has violated the Armistice Agreement before and often said it will not enforce the Agreement, that it is unworkable and that it needs to be replaced with a bilateral peace treaty between North Korea and the United States.

"We have heard all this before," he says, adding" it's part of a pattern of action to try and render the Armistice Agreement ineffective through a series of steps and create a mechanism for pressuring the United States."

But the official acknowledged that Pyongyang's Thursday statement, declaring the agreement null and void, is a new development. North Korea never before officially repudiated the Armistice Agreement, he said.

However, the State department official says one side cannot unilaterally withdraw from the Agreement, signed in 1953 by military leaders of the Korean People's Army, the Chinese People's Volunteers and the United Nations Command.

It stipulates that all parties must mutually agree on any withdrawal, he says.

That is not likely to happen. U.N. officials say a lot of quiet diplomacy is going on behind the scenes to persuade North Korea to recommit to the Armistice Agreement.

China, one of the few supporters of North Korea's Stalinist regime has obliquely criticized the DMZ violations. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Tuesday that Beijing agrees with Pyongyang there should be a new peace treaty for the Korean peninsula. But before it is established, he said "China believes the armistice agreement should remain valid."

Russia too, while emphasizing its own distinct foreign policy in the Far East, supports the basic U.S. position that the two Koreas should resolve their differences directly.

The Russian Foreign Ministry Tuesday called on North Korea to exercise restraint and urged a negotiated settlement of its differences with Seoul.

The U.S. official says Pyongyang's attempt to cut Seoul out of the peace process and refusal to talk to South Korean leaders is the main obstacle to improving relations with the United States.

The two countries signed an agreement in 1994 under which Pyongyang froze its nuclear program in return for new nuclear technology and alternative energy supplies worth 4,500 million dollars. Much of it is being supplied by South Korea and under the terms of the agreement, the two Koreas are to engage in dialogue.

A U.S.-led international consortium meets regularly with North Korean officials to implement the agreement. One such meeting is going on this week in New York. But the U.S. official says "the dialogue between North and South Korea has not happened."

In most other respects, he says North Korea is fulfilling its obligations and economic contacts are moving forward.

He says the U.S. has direct contacts with North Korean officials and hopes to continue to im prove ties. The only thing that is not on the bilateral agenda is any discussion of a U.S.-North Korean peace treaty. "That would not be appropriate," he said.