A glimmer of Korean peace New York meeting: North comes to table after receiving food aid pledges.

March 06, 1997

FOR TWO REGIMES that deny each other's legitimacy and in 25 years have not talked, North and South Korea have one convenient back channel. In 1991, both joined the United Nations. New York is a village; no telling whom you will meet there. Just yesterday, assistant ministers of North Korea, South Korea and the United States found themselves in the same hotel room, at a round table. Tomorrow, the North Korean and American officials expect to be there again.

This is the "briefing," with North Korea hearing what South Korea and the United States envisage for four-power peace talks in which China and the U.S. would mediate and join a peace between the two Koreas. It would put an end to the Korean War which raged from 1950 until 1953, when the shooting stopped for an armistice that is still in force with heavy armaments and no trust on both sides.

This is the way the U.S. and South Korea wished to proceed. North Korea refused, until the U.S. and South Korea pledged last month to resume aid to relieve North Korea's acute famine. What North Korea wanted was face-to-face talks with the U.S. as though South Korea didn't exist. That may sound suspiciously like tomorrow's meeting, a similarity Washington is prepared to deny.

These probing overtures toward a civilized communication come when each Korea is in crisis, the North's considerably more acute.

Kim Jong Il, the strange apparent dictator of North Korea, has just ceremoniously visited the troops for the first time since a major confidant defected, the prime minister was sacked and the defense minister and vice minister died of coincidental illnesses.

Kim Young Sam, the democratically elected president of South Korea, has just replaced his own prime minister and shuffled the cabinet. He brought back a former finance minister to restore confidence after labor strife and the collapse of a giant savings and loan that enjoyed corrupt political protection. He is ineligible to succeed himself in the election next December, but wants it to go well.

After shocks and alarms over destabilization of the Korean peninsula, based on the reclusiveness and failure of the North regime and pinprick attacks on the South, the New York talks could become very good news indeed. They loom as the possible harbinger of a real peace, or at least a means of living together, 44 years after the guns fell silent on the demilitarized zone (DMZ). It would be about time.

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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