SEOUL, South Korea -- Just last month, diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula seemed a permafrost of enmity and distrust, with relations between North Korea and South Korea distinctly chilly and bleak.
Now there are signs of a thaw. No one knows whether it will get very far, but diplomats and scholars say that forces are at work to create far-reaching opportunities to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula over the next few years.
One opportunity will come Wednesday, when officials from the United States and South Korea sit down in New York with senior diplomats from North Korea to discuss a proposal for talks that could lead to a formal end to the Korean War. The fighting was suspended in 1953 with a simple armistice, rather than a real peace treaty, and the border across the middle of Korea remains the site of the greatest massing of enemy troops on the globe.
The meeting will be simply talks about talks, for North Korea has agreed only to accept a briefing about what the four-party talks -- involving the United States, China and the two Koreas -- would be about. But officials note that a handful of other efforts are also under way to ease tensions.
In one of the more modest steps, the South Korean government authorized seven domestic companies to do business in North Korea yesterday, in such sectors as manufacturing textiles and bottling mineral water. South Korea has also agreed to send North Korea 300 tons of flour, a small amount but a hint of what South Korea could provide.
Many people expect the United States and North Korea to open liaison offices in each other's capitals later this year, a step toward the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations. The United States may also ease its sanctions against North Korea and, together with Japan, send some food assistance.
North Korea is expected to approve further visits by U.S. experts who would search for the remains of soldiers killed in the Korean War, and U.S. and North Korean officials will also discuss the spread of missiles. Some diplomats think that North Korea could be induced to give up its entire ballistic missile program if the price were right.
And then, the ground-breaking is expected this spring on a landmark project to build two new light-water nuclear reactors for North Korea, in exchange for its giving up its suspected nuclear weapons program. South Koreans would then be based at the construction site in North Korea.
More broadly, some see the virtual economic collapse in North Korea as creating new hopes for change. The notion is that North Korea may be so desperate that it will accept distasteful steps -- such as discussions with South Korea -- in exchange for vast amounts of assistance that the government in Seoul is holding out as a lure.
"Further and expanded aid to the North depends on its attitude," said Kim Suk Woo, the deputy minister of national unification. "If North Korea is prepared to admit its economic difficulties and reach out and cooperate with South Korea," he added, "then a breakthrough could happen."
Kim Suk Woo said that among the steps that South Korea could take would be allowing tourists to go to North Korea, assisting North Korea's agricultural base, repairing flood damage, and authorizing South Korean companies to invest in North Korea. Collectively, such moves would amount to a revolution in relations.
Some analysts say that one excellent omen was North Korea's willingness to express regret last month for having sent a submarine full of commandos into South Korean waters.
That incursion last September had poisoned relations between the two Koreas and halted all plans for cooperation.
The statement of regret put U.S. policy of engaging North Korea back on track, but for now North Korea is still rejecting any discussions with South Korea.
"Frankly, it is highly unlikely that four-party talks will take place," said Kim Myong Chol, an unofficial spokesman for North Korea in Tokyo.
Kim Myong Chol said that North Korea was attending the briefing Wednesday out of courtesy to President Clinton, rather than because of any real interest.
"North Korea has every reason to be polite to President Clinton, but we have no reason to listen to South Korea," Kim Myong Chol said. "So we don't foresee any improvement in relations between North and South Korea."
One reason for skepticism about the prospects for major improvement is simply the force of personalities, especially that of South Korean President Kim Young Sam. Kim says that his mother was killed by North Korean commandos in 1960, and he clearly harbors a visceral hostility for North Korea -- which it reciprocates.
Pub Date: 1/26/97