Rhetoric Intensifies in Korea Row

SEOUL -- South Korea's army chief ordered troops Tuesday to apply "rules of war" if North Korean soldiers set foot across the border, an army spokesman said.

Hostile rhetoric flew on both sides of the tense demilitarized zone, or DMZ, into which Pyongyang troops intruded on three successive days from last Friday, sparking a security scare in Seoul.

Pyongyang said its forces were ready to "smash enemies at one stroke." China, the one country believed to have the ear of Pyongyang's isolated Communist leaders, chided North Korea, joining a growing list of nations condemning the forays as violations of a truce that ended the 1950 to 1953 Korean war.

Meanwhile, political uncertainty loomed in South Korea after a leader of the ruling party conceded his government was unpopular and was preparing for the worst in Thursday's parliamentary elections.

South Korean army chief of staff Yoon Yong-nam held a meeting of field commanders. "General Yoon ordered that if the enemy takes even one step across the Military Demarcation Line, rules of war must immediately be applied," said army spokesman Lee Jae-man. South Korean forces would first fire warning shots, then open fire at intruders, Lee quoted Yoon as saying.

Foreign reporters taken to the DMZ on Tuesday by the U.S.-led United Nations Command saw no signs of unusual tension.

U.S. officials have been anxious to dispel fears that Pyongyang's military maneuvers represent a new threat. Most analysts believe Pyongyang's theatrical intrusions are aimed at driving Washington to negotiate a bilateral peace treaty to replace the truce.

Nevertheless, the South Korean government Tuesday banned its citizens from visiting the border village of Panmunjom.

The North Korean daily Rodong Sinmun extolled the power of the country's military forces. "At present, all soldiers of the People's Army are full of fighting spirit to smash enemies at one stroke if our respected comrade supreme commander gives an order," it said, referring to uncrowned leader Kim Jong-il. "The question is not whether a war will break out but when the war breaks out."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Chen Jian said China hoped the Koreas could reach a new peace accord. A senior member of South Korea's ruling New Korea Party said the party was bracing for a setback in National Assembly polls Thursday, despite help from Pyongyang's saber-rattling, and might be forced into an alliance to hold power.

Russia sent a top official to Pyongyang on Tuesday for talks on North Korea's breach of the armistice with the South.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Panov, Moscow's top diplomat on Far Eastern affairs, said he would be in Pyongyang from Wednesday to Friday, at the same time as a long-planned trade union. He said he would sound out the North on the Russian suggestion to call an international conference to build up trust on the divided peninsula -- a suggestion he called "the very best option."