In yet another sign of strained relations between allies, South Korean officials and businesspeople have complained that the United States is thwarting historic reconciliation projects with North Korea to connect railroads and roads through the DMZ.
At issue are the procedures to be followed when crossing the 150-mile-long, 2 1/2-mile-wide demilitarized zone, where the U.S. military has been stationed for half a century as the dominant player in a U.N. mission.
U.S. military officials insist, for example, that they receive the names of all people crossing the DMZ. The North Koreans have refused, insisting that the transportation corridors should not be subject to the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, and that details should be worked out between the North and South alone.
The American military officials maintain that they are merely doing their job upholding the armistice and that the North Koreans are to blame for delays in the projects.
The officials believe that the North Koreans are trying to manipulate the dispute over the transportation corridors to further their long-standing campaign against the U.S. presence in the DMZ. Shortly before Christmas, a North Korean military patrol carried machine guns into one of the new roads through the DMZ in what Americans believe was a deliberate flouting of the rules to test U.S. resolve about the transportation corridors.
Today, the U.S. military reported that North Korean soldiers have stepped up patrols in one area of the DMZ.
"They want to create a division between the United States and the Republic of Korea," said a senior official of the U.N. Command, who asked not to be quoted by name. "They want to show that you don't need a U.S. presence on the peninsula."
The dispute comes at a time when many South Koreans are questioning the U.S. role on the peninsula, and it could further hinder the Bush administration's efforts to forge a consensus on North Korea. The spat has been festering quietly behind the scenes for several months, with South Korean officials not speaking out publicly for fear of adding fresh fuel to the mood of anti-Americanism here.
Last week, Yim Sung Joon, South Korea's national security advisor, voiced concerns to key members of the Bush administration during meetings in Washington, according to a South Korean government official.
"We sent the top official to Washington to ask for a relaxation on the restrictions, but we haven't received any positive response," said Lee Duk Haeng, an official of the South Korean Unification Ministry. "We are not in a position to push any farther because we don't want to build on anti-American sentiments."
Mine-clearing was completed last month on two roads through the DMZ, one running along the east coast and another in the west, in anticipation of two historic ceremonies that had been scheduled around the New Year's holiday. One was a Dec. 30 groundbreaking of a $5-billion industrial park being developed by South Korea near the North Korean city of Kaesong. The other was the first overland trip to North Korea's scenic Mt. Kumgang, which had been scheduled to depart on New Year's Eve.
South Korean officials say the construction of the railroad also has been delayed because they have been unable to deliver $50 million worth of construction materials and equipment being donated to North Korea for the work.
The projects are hallmarks of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement with North Korea.
Both ceremonies were canceled at the last minute because of the DMZ dispute.
"The U.N. equal to the U.S. has reservations about the whole thing," said a South Korean government official, who asked not to be identified.
Kim Yoon Kyu, president of Hyundai Asan, the giant conglomerate's subsidiary that is the driving force behind the industrial park and the tours to North Korea, says the U.S. has been too rigorous in enforcing the rules concerning the DMZ.
"This is something that 70 million Koreans have been waiting for more than 50 years," Kim said in an interview. "It should not be delayed because of the nuclear problems."
Kim complained to U.S. Army Gen. Leon LaPorte, who heads the U.N. Command here, in an eight-page letter detailing the tragic history of the Korean peninsula and the significance of the reconciliation projects. He received a reply last week pledging enthusiastic support for the sunshine policy but nonetheless standing firm on the need for certain rules.
"The transportation corridors within the DMZ remain subject to the armistice agreement. We are following the same procedures that have worked successfully for 50 years," said Lee Ferguson, spokeswoman for the U.N. Command. She added that the command has never denied a request by the South Koreans to cross the DMZ.
A U.S. official in Seoul said the South Korean government agrees with the United States in principle that the armistice must be upheld.
"What both the United States and the Republic of Korea are seeking is a way to allow the projects to go forward. To the extent there are differences, they are minor differences about how to craft language, but there is no difference about the principle involved," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Larger issues underlie the seemingly legalistic dispute over the armistice -- namely, how to pressure the North Koreans into dropping their nuclear program.
Though supportive in general of the sunshine policy, many in the Bush administration believe that it sends the wrong message for South Korea to schedule high-profile groundbreaking events during the nuclear standoff.
Both Kim Dae Jung and South Korea's president-elect, Roh Moo Hyun, have pledged that previously announced projects will go on as scheduled despite the North's nuclear challenge. Roh has offended some in the Bush administration with comments publicly questioning the role of the U.S. military on the peninsula.
The North Koreans put the blame for delays in reconciliation projects solidly on the United States. As North Korea's unification committee put it in a recent statement, the United States "unnecessarily created so-called nuclear problems at the same time meddling into Korean national affairs and enhancing the crisis in the Korean peninsula. This is tantamount to a madness by a war maniac."