At 10:55 a.m. today, a 21-member honor guard marched crisply toward the low concrete berm that serves as the dividing line between North Korea and South Korea. At 11 a.m. sharp, North Korea was scheduled to return the newly unearthed remains of four soldiers killed in the Korean War. The date and time had been set for months, agreed upon by U.S. and North Korean negotiators in New York last December.
Four metal casket stands stood gleaming in the late morning sun. Four officers in dress uniform waited stiffly at attention with light blue U.N. flags to drape over the caskets. A dozen members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars watched and waited, as did the top U.S. military officers in South Korea.
Silent minutes passed, and no one showed up on the North Korean side.
At 11:02, the honor guard clicked its heels and marched back from the line. Moments later, Gen. John Tilelli, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, said an official called North Korea on a hot line and was told that, because today is a holiday in North Korea, there would be no ceremony.
"This is tremendously insensitive," said Tilelli, who flew by helicopter from Seoul for the event. "They have violated an agreement they made with the United States. This reflects an insensitivity I don't think you'd find in many other places."
Today's North Korean no-show is bad news as observers try to predict Pyongyang's next move after Tuesday's high seas shootout with South Korea. Pyongyang has been sending mixed signals -- some hostile, some calm -- since the South Korean navy sank a North Korean ship that had entered a disputed area of the Yellow Sea, killing an estimated 20 or more sailors.
How North Korea proceeds from this dangerous point could be critical to President Clinton and to U.S. security interests in Asia. Clinton is weighing his North Korea policy in light of increasing congressional pique at North Korea's rogue behavior, particularly its production and sales of ballistic missiles and its suspected push to develop nuclear weapons.
Tuesday's shootout, in which North Korea violated long-established borderlines and then fired first, is sure to provide ammunition to critics of Clinton's policies of engagement. And today's no-show, which will surely be taken by many as a snub on a deeply emotional issue, is yet another example of Pyongyang's exasperating behavior.
It is impossible to draw a certain link between today's events and Tuesday's naval battle. Tilelli said he believed the two events were probably not linked. He said the North Koreans have honored previous promises to return remains, even at times of great unease on other fronts.
"I can see no reason why they would want to put this agreement in jeopardy," Tilelli said. His staff noted that today was the 10th such repatriation ceremony since 1997, and only once before have the North Koreans failed to show up. In that case, last May, they offered no explanation and made the return several days later.
But a broadcast today by North Korean state radio said, "The U.S. maneuver to reinforce its armed forces and tighten its vigilance raises tensions over the situation on the Korean peninsula."
North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations warned in a letter to the Security Council today that the United States was trying to unleash a new war on the peninsula and added that "a war may break out at any time."
Tilelli said the United States was simply being prudent. Two powerful Aegis cruisers and several surveillance and electronic warfare planes have been dispatched to the area, and a carrier group led by the USS Constellation is en route from San Diego, skipping a scheduled stop in Hawaii.
"It would be frivolous of us not to take this seriously," Tilelli said. "It could have escalated, and fortunately it has not. Our greatest outcome on any given day here is to deter war. So far, we have."
Tilelli said that stability has returned to the area where the shooting took place but that it is too soon to predict whether there will be more trouble.
Meeting with reporters today, South Korean Foreign Minister Hong Soon Young also said it was "too early to tell, but judging by all the signs so far, North Korea seems not to want to escalate the confrontation any further."