The incursions by North Korean troops into the Demilitarised Zone dividing North and South Korea, over the past week, underline the dangerous unpredictability of the Pyongyang regime. Comparisons are already being made with the situation twenty years ago, when at the height of the Cold War, Northern guards killed two American Army officers. In Seoul yesterday, the assistant defence minister warned - on the basis of information gleaned from North Korea - that war on the Korean peninsula was now inevitable. The question, he said, was not whether, there would be a war, but when it would materialise.

The incursions follow the North's announcement last week that it no longer respects the armistice that ended the 1950-3 war. The suggestion in some quarters is that the latest security scare is intended to undermine President Kim's New Korea Party (NPK)

in today's elections to the South Korean National Assembly. But this view is hardly persuasive: Mr Kim's resolute response to the crisis is now widely expected to improve his party's electoral prospects.

It may be that there is, more at issue here than today's elections or the forty year old armistice dispute: the North may be intent on testing the will and the resolve of the international community, notably the United States.

The North may take the view that another bout of sabre rattling is required to achieved its cherished goal, of a separate bilateral peace treaty with the United States. The hope in Pyongyang is that Seoul will be effectively by passed in a formal treaty to end the Korean war, and that this will herald the withdrawal of some 37,000 US troops from South Korea.

On past evidence, the North has some grounds for confidence that its latest provocations will yield results. Two years ago, a carefully manipulated scare about its nuclear research programme helped to wrest a series of economic and diplomatic concessions from Washington. Today, the need for economic assistance is still more pressing; North Korea is now struggling with very serious fuel and food shortages. After a series of floods wiped out last year's rice crop, the United Nations estimates that the North needs over one million tonnes of food to carry it through to the next harvest in October. The fact that Moscow can no longer provide its once sturdy economic and diplomatic support adds to the sense of crisis.

When he visits Seoul next week, President Clinton is expected to underline his opposition to any new concessions towards the North. The view in Washington is that this would only `reward' Pyongyang for its aggression. Clearly, North Korea needs to be told in very unambiguous terms that the threat of force across the Demilitarised Zone will not be tolerated. There are also inherent dangers in allowing the North to wrest more concession from aggression.

But Washington may also need to take the wider view: it must also be mindful that an exclusively hostile, approach towards the North could destabilise the entire north east Asian region.