Seoul Stirs Worries Of North Aggression

SEOUL -- South Korean officials whipped up a crisis mood Wednesday, the eve of general elections, warning of everything from a North Korean naval blockade to border shootings.

A Defense Ministry official, referring to recent Communist troop incursions, compared the situation to the dark days of the Cold War 20 years ago when Northern border guards axed two U.S. army officers to death.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Ignatenko arrived in Pyongyang to try to defuse the heightened tensions. His visit coincided with a fresh warning from UN aid officials of a worsening food shortage in the impoverished North.

In Tokyo, a visiting North Korean delegation made an urgent appeal to Japan for a third emergency consignment of rice to help it cope with the disastrous shortfall caused by the floods which destroyed last year's grain crop.

The Russian envoy was to sound out North Korean leaders on Moscow's suggestion for an international conference to build up trust on the divided peninsula.

Rhetoric between the two Koreas has spiralled since Pyongyang signalled its contempt for a truce that ended the 1950 to 1953 Korean War by sending heavily armed troops into the Panmunjom border crossing area.

Three incursions into a neutral buffer zone starting Friday are seen as scare tactics to persuade Washington to sign a bilateral peace treaty, shutting out Seoul.

"There's great potential of North Korea escalating provocations," Assistant Defense Minister Park Yong-ok told a news conference on Wednesday.

"North Korea's top leaders have repeatedly said war is inevitable," Park said. "They said the question is not whether or not there will be war on the Korean peninsula, but when it will transpire."

Park compared the current situation to August 1976 following the Panmunjom axe murders. Tension peaked when the United States sent the carrier Midway and five other warships to Korea's east coast. North Korea's then leader, Kim Il-sung, apologized.

Park said Pyongyang's next moves could include provoking border shooting incidents or blockading islands off the western coast of the Korean peninsula.

The main opposition party turned up the heat ahead of Thursday's elections, saying the government was partly to blame for North Korean troop incursions. "The responsibility for the North Korean incident rests firstly on the North, but it is also the fault of our government, which has changed its policies on North Korea 16 times in the past three years," said Chyung Dai-chul of the National Congress for New Politics.