South Korea shrugged off a threat by North Korea today to abandon the armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. Officials in the South said the dispute over North Korea's nuclear program is not as dangerous as some people in Washington believe.
"I believe the danger of war on the Korean Peninsula is slight -- in fact, nonexistent," President Kim Dae Jung told his cabinet this morning, according to a statement from his office. Kim did not mention the armistice threat specifically, a spokesman said.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the North's threat would "only serve to hurt, isolate and move North Korea backward." He advised being "judicious" about it, saying, "there is a lengthy history of bravado to some of their statements."
North Korea declared it would have "no option but to take a decisive step to abandon its commitment" to the armistice if the United States imposed sanctions, such as a naval blockade, and continued what the statement called plans to build up forces for a preemptive attack on the North.
The U.N. Security Council is due to take up North Korea's declaration that it has withdrawn from the global nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The council has the authority to impose sanctions.
An official of the transition team for President-elect Roh Moo Hyun, who is scheduled to take office next Tuesday, noted that the North Korean warning is contingent on sanctions being imposed. "We must resolve the conflict before the situation develops in that direction," he said.
In Japan, the government's top spokesman, Yasuo Fukuda, said of North Korea's threat: "We have to take it calmly."
The armistice stopped the Korean War after three years of fighting, establishing a truce line between North and South Korea and procedures for military consultations between the two sides. There was never a peace treaty officially ending the war, and the so-called Demilitarized Zone along the truce line is one of the most heavily fortified boundaries in the world.
Differences in perception of the seriousness of the North Korean program to enrich uranium and produce weapons-grade plutonium are creating strains in relations between Washington and Seoul, key officials have acknowledged. Privately, some South Korean officials today were blunt, accusing the United States of mishandling the affair and exaggerating the threat.
"I wouldn't put too much weight on whether North Korea will actually initiate any real conflict," said one official, insisting on anonymity. The problem, he said, is "you've got a lot of people who haven't watched the North-South situation in the past" in Washington. "Suddenly you've got these amateurs with lots of ideas."
"I think the U.S. is exaggerating North Korea's threat and being too sensitive about this," said another official. North Korea's threat "is a very offensively oriented move," said Kim Byung Ki, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul. "They are trying to gain as much of a bargaining position as possible. They are waiting for the U.S. response."