SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea’s military went on its highest alert in seven years today as concerns arose that North Korea could use the distraction of war in Iraq to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said.

Shabina Khatri
A South Korean soldier mans a machine gun on an armored military vehicle during a military training to prepare for possible attacks in Yeonchon.

Yonhap, quoting unnamed sources, said South Korea elevated its military’s Watch Condition to a level 2 for the first time since 1996.

The move affects mostly military intelligence and other units assigned to watch the tense border and does not involve any major southern troop movements.

The Defense Ministry would not confirm the report. But South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was expected to address the nation later today in a live, televised speech on the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

South Korea elevated its Watch Condition to a level 2 in 1996 when North Korean troops marched into the truce village of Panmunjom to raise tensions.

Yesterday, the U.S.-led United Nations Command sought to ease North Korean fears over joint military exercises in South Korea, saying they are defensive and not related to “current world events.”

The statement, made to North Korean officers during a meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, comes amid U.S. preparations for war against Iraq.

The North has maintained the exercises signal plans to invade it. Pyongyang refused a request to discuss the matter at a higher military level on Thursday, the U.N. Command said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military in South Korea announced plans to implement a new curfew beginning late today.

“The new curfew is aimed at protecting U.S. soldiers and civilian employees from anybody that might want to potentially use the world situation to their benefits,” said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for the U.S. Eighth Army.

All 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea must be off the streets by 7:30 p.m., several hours earlier than the normal curfew, he said.

Referring to the North’s refusal to agree to a high-level meeting on the joint exercises, Col. Martin Glasser of the Command’s Military Armistice Commission said the North “has turned down an excellent opportunity to discuss important events affecting the Korean peninsula.”

Glasser said the annual exercises are not related to “current world events.”

“We also explained that the exercise is defensive in nature and is not an aggressive or a threatening move against North Korea,” he said in a statement. “And that these are regularly scheduled exercises much like the exercises they routinely conduct in North Korea.”

North Korea insisted the United States is preparing to attack, a claim it has made in previous years.

“The ever more reckless saber rattling of the U.S. imperialists is, in a nutshell, a premeditated move to mount a pre-emptive nuclear attack,” the official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said yesterday.

Military exercises began early this month and will continue through April 2.

Also yesterday, North Korea said it has the right to develop missiles, increasing fears it might resume test-launching long-range missiles.

Pyongyang has fired two short-range missiles off its east coast in recent weeks, raising tensions in a region already roiled by a standoff over its suspected nuclear weapons programs.

North Korea insisted its missile program “is of purely peaceful nature and does not pose a threat to anyone,” in a commentary carried by the North’s official news agency KCNA. The North, it said, has a “sovereign right to go ahead with its missile program.”

Japanese media reported last week that North Korea appeared to be making final preparations to test-launch a ballistic missile, although government officials in the region have denied having strong evidence that a test is imminent.

With the United States focused on Iraq, experts say North Korea might use the opportunity to test long-range missiles or reprocess spent nuclear fuel to make atomic bombs. That would be viewed as an attempt to force Washington into direct negotiations over its nuclear programs.

Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned against missile tests and said fuel reprocessing would make it harder to find a peaceful solution to the dispute.

“I think it would make political dialogue and finding a diplomatic way forward much more difficult if they’ve started the reprocessing facility, and I don’t know what utility they think they would find in launching missiles toward any of their neighbors,” Powell said.

Washington says if North Korea begins reprocessing its spent fuel, it could have enough plutonium for several atomic bombs within months.

The Korean nuclear crisis flared in October, when U.S. officials said Pyongyang admitted having a uranium program. Washington and its allies suspended fuel shipments, and the North retaliated by expelling U.N. monitors, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarting a nuclear reactor.

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