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50 years on, Korean Peninsula remains tense

From Mike Chinoy
CNN Senior Asia Correspondent

A South Korean soldier mans his post patrol along a railroad link leading towards North Korea
A South Korean soldier mans his post patrol along a railroad link leading towards North Korea

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(CNN) -- This year marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

The conflict ended on July 27, 1953 with around three million casualties from 37 months of fighting, but without a peace agreement.

Instead an armistice was signed, creating an uneasy truce that divided a peninsula -- and countless Korean families -- into a communist North and an American-backed South.

Today, 37,000 U.S. troops remain in South Korea in an alliance between Seoul and Washington that forms the centerpiece of American strategy for deterring North Korea and maintaining regional stability.

Now, though, that stability is under threat.

North Korea's decision to restart its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, its expulsion of international inspectors, and its withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty has created what some have described as the worst security crisis in Northeast Asia in years.

Topping those concerns is North Korea's nuclear intentions.

"If the five or six bombs' worth of plutonium they are sitting on ends up going into nuclear weapons, then I think we are really reaching a watershed moment where the U.S., its troops in the region and its allies are threatened by a nuclear North Korea, with, I think, very significant regional and global consequences," says Jon Wolfsthal from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But the U.S. and South Korea remain sharply at odds over how to deal with North Korea.

Pyongyang has repeatedly called for direct talks with Washington, and says its dispute is only with the United States.

Those calls though have brought little in the way of answers from Washington, which maintains that it won't be bullied into any concessions.

"We are prepared to talk directly with the North Koreans to explain what they have to do to come back into compliance with their international obligations, but we will not negotiate with them in a fashion that rewards bad behavior or that is submission to blackmail," U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton says.

Pushing for diplomacy

But the United States' ally, South Korea, is pushing for diplomacy and has seen recent inroads towards a resolution of the crisis.

"I think that the best means of peaceful solution is dialogue, and rather than unilaterally demanding that North Korea abandon its nuclear ambitions, I think both parties have to come to the table for negotiations and dialogue," South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun says.

Roh, who has backed current President Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the communist North, has also called for a summit with North Korea's Kim Il Jong when he takes office later this year.

As a follow up to high-level inter-Korean talks last week, South Korea has dispatched two presidential envoys to Pyongyang.

Despite diplomatic efforts appearing to be making progress, there's a growing chorus of voices in Washington arguing that the only solution is the collapse of the North Korean regime.

"We've already begun to talk about regime change in North Korea. It is the clearest way for us to come to the assistance of people who are being repressed and it is the only way of getting lasting non-proliferation results," says Henry Sokolski from the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center.

The outlines of a possible diplomatic deal are clear enough. North Korea wants security guarantees from the U.S. in return for an end to Pyongyang's nuclear efforts.

But putting the pieces of this diplomatic puzzle together remains a daunting challenge.

While South Korea has taken the initiative by sending a high level delegation to meet the North Korean leader, Pyongyang insists that only direct talks with the U.S. can resolve the crisis.

And this is something the Bush administration has thus far steadfastly refused to agree to.

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