Nervousness in both Koreas Seoul shooting: Impoverished North still threatens the booming South.

February 18, 1997

SOUTH KOREA made a good decision yesterday to maintain food aid and dispatch technicians to North Korea in hopes of providing it with nuclear power minus a weapons byproduct. Until this gesture for stability, both the noisy government of South Korea and the reclusive Communist-military regime of North Korea were talking up a crisis.

North Korean diplomats in Beijing were threatening war if the prominent defector Hwang Jang Yop, who has just observed his 74th birthday inside the South Korean consulate there, is allowed out to Seoul.

South Korea went on alert and publicly offered bodyguards to prominent defectors. It accused the North of sending hit men who on Saturday night gravely wounded Lee Han Young (who had plastic surgery and had changed his name after defecting 15 years ago).

The North, home of 22 million malnourished people, has just celebrated the 55th birthday and genius of Kim Jong Il, whose cult of personality is gaining and who shares power in some unfathomed way with the military establishment. The North always uses threats and fear to intimidate the people into loyalty or acquiescence. The South has hard-won democracy, but President Kim Young Sam is not above demagogy, whipping up fears of the North to deflect attention from scandals at home. The parliament is investigating the collapse of the giant Hanbo Steel Corp. after political pressure on banks to make unjustifiable loans to it. His son is involved.

As the U.S. has conducted secret diplomacy in the past year with Pyongyang, Washington's relations with Seoul have gotten testy. It is a mistake to let North Korea drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. They should maintain a joint policy of firmness with accommodation and dialogue to preserve the stability in the Korean peninsula on which the South's prosperity depends, while the North faces inevitable transitions.

Word from Pyongyang yesterday that the foreign ministry of the North accepted Mr. Hwang's defection defused some of the tension, and met the conciliatory gesture of the South. Each regime might see some value in a crisis but only calamity in a war.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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