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The Korean 'hot line'

The reopening of a telephone "hot line" between North and South Korea will not command much attention given the high drama of other world events. Nor can it be thought that the resumed talks at Panmunjom will soon accomplish the goal of reunification of the tragically divided Korean peninsula. But the dialogue is significant and deserves encouragement. In the past the North Koreans have tended to gloss over the question of the officialness of the delegations. Now for the first time they are addressing the South as the Republic of Korea and the two sides are meeting on a basis of equality. That represents a positive change.

Why North Korea took the initiative of reviving the dialogue at this time, and offering some conciliatory gestures, can only be speculated about, inasmuch as less information filters out of Pyongyang than out of Moscow or Peking. One factor is probably the assassination of President Park and North Korea's desire to inject itself into a fluid and uncertain political situation, perhaps with a view to influencing the kind of government which eventually emerges in Seoul. It is possible, too, that the changes in China, including its accommodation with the West, as well as concern about Soviet expansionism are altering strategic perceptions in the North Korean capital. Maybe the establishment of North-South Korean ties is beginning to look more attractive to Pyongyang in the light of what it may see as a more bipolar world.

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Whatever Pyongyang's intentions, however, this could prove the beginning of a constructive trend toward cooperation. Actual reunification will necessarily remain a long-term goal. Even a "two-Germanys" solution -- i.e., a stabilization of the territorial status quo and resumption of relations between the two Koreas -- seems out of the question at present. North Korea has adamantly opposed such a solution, even as a temporary one. It cannot be forgotten either that what communist leader Kim Il Sung means by reunification is reunification on North Korea's terms -- something totally unacceptable to South Korea and its protector, the United States. Indeed, until here are liberalizing and humanizing reforms within North Korea itself, an extremely authoritarian and rigid society, it is hard to foresee a real opening to the South.

But, assuming that military force is ruled out as an instrument of change -- and it is -- the next best thing is to start rebuilding ties at a modest level. This means talking about travel, cultural exchanges, trade, and reunification of families, thousands of which were broken up when Korea was sundered in two. Progress in these areas could eventually bring the sides around to dealing with the critical issues of national security and troops, and even, ultimately, reunification. The point is that the process of reconciliation, if and when begun, will help build trust and confidence.

The aim of the current working-level talks is to arrange a meeting of the North and South Korean prime ministers, which would be the first such meeting since the end of World War II. Surely the United States and every other chancery should give this effort its thoughtful support. South Korea, too, ought vigorously to probe the possibilities for bridging the gap between the two halves of a homogenous nation. No one can have any illusions about an early resolution of a 30-year-old problem. But the gradual elimination of a now-worrisome source of tension and conflict in East Asia would be counted a major achievement on the road to genuine world peace. Not to mention a blessing to the Korean people.


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