Does anything today seem as unlikely as Richard Nixon's ping-pong diplomacy with ''Red China'' in the late '60s? Yes, Ronald Reagan making a similar overture toward Kim Il-sung's regime in North Korea.
However, it should not be unthinkable. In fact, as an arch conservative, diehard anticommunist, and stalwart supporter of South Korea, President Reagan is in a position very similar to that facing President Nixon a few years back.
What would be the point in the Reagan administration taking the initiative vis-a-vis North Korea?
Clearly Washington does not have any incentive to switch allegiances as did Mr. Nixon and his successors with the two Chinas. The United States is committed to preserving South Korean and Northeast Asian stability for sound reasons.
North Korea can offer the US nothing directly. Kim Il-sung's regime is the antithesis of what the US stands for. Moreover, it is stridently anti-American, blaming the US for nearly all of Korea's problems.
Why is there any need for an American overture toward Pyongyang? For one purpose: to help prevent a second Korean War by defusing the always tense situation on the peninsula.
The United States today has two successful allies in the region: Japan and South Korea. Much to Pyongyang's consternation, Washington also has one increasingly successful friend and would-be ally: the People's Republic of China. Utilizing various sorts of capitalist incentives, all three of these Asian friends are making real economic progress. Only North Korea is left out of this emerging Western-oriented scenario.
Moreover, Pyongyang is falling ever further behind. At the moment North Korea can turn only to the Soviet Union for succor. Moscow has the will and the wherewithal to provide the assistance Pyongyang can use. As frictions between the US and the Soviet Union mount worldwide, lifting the constraints imposed by ''detente,'' there is little reason for Moscow not to lend a larger hand in North Korea.
Only Soviet reluctance to be drawn into a North Korean strategic miscalculation and Pyongyang's paranoia about foreign domination seem to keep the two allies from cozying up to each other even more.
Such restraints are a thin thread keeping conditions in Korea from taking a potentially nasty turn. It is that possibility which should motivate the United States to make a low-key but positive overture toward the North Koreans. The best conceivable way to defuse the situation in Korea is to try to wean Pyongyang away from its existing policies. Washington has never sincerely tried such an approach and should do so now.
The Reagan administration has no political clout in North Korea. Pyongyang's juchem (self-reliance) policy and its institutionalized hatred of ''capitalist imperialism'' make North Korea an unpromising customer. These bleak prospects should not, however, keep Americans from trying to sell the West to North Korea.
After all, if the appeals of capitalism could tempt China to look at the US, Japan, and South Korea as models for rectifying past Marxist economic fiascos, why couldn't North Korea be similarly tempted?
To that end, Mr. Reagan should take advantage of his impeccable credentials and try to tempt North Korea with capitalist goodies. No official overture need be implemented. That would be too damaging to our South Korean ally's interests. Washington would be yielding de facto diplomatic recognition without any guarantee of something concrete in response.
Instead, a seemingly passive policy of deregulation should be carried out. The US should cease restraining private sector economic and other relations with North Korea. The primary objective of such deregulation should be to wean North Korea away from its relative isolation and encourage it to follow China's lead toward a more Western economic orientation. The motivation for such a move should be our desire to temper Pyongyang's hardline ways by fostering in North Korea some stake in mutual economic interests.
As a corollary, there will be opportunities to gradually improve communication between the US and North Korea as well as South Korea and North Korea, working toward reduced tensions and lessened risk of war on the peninsula.
None of this should be seen as an effort to undercut South Korea. In fact, Seoul ought to be a strong behind-the-scenes backer of an American overture toward North Korea. If it works, Washington's overture would help create attitudes in North Korea which would be very compatible with Seoul's world view. North-South Korean friction would be reduced and the prospects for national reunification markedly improved. Even if an American overture were to fall on deaf ears, South Korea would not be harmed, for it still would possess the same strong American support it has today.
The timing of a low-key US sanctioning of private sector overtures toward North Korea is something that must be calculated against the context of evolving world affairs. However, there is no reason to delay too long. The longer North Korea is left beyond the pale of capitalist progress, the greater the chance it will be compelled to tilt decisively toward Moscow and away from Peking.
Furthermore, a successful overture accomplished before Kim Il-sung's departure from the scene is more likely to survive the trauma of succession by Pyongyang's heir apparent, Kim Chong-il, which looms on the horizon.
Why not take advantage of 1982, the centennial year of US-Korean diplomatic relations, to carry out such an initiative? Confident in the drawing power of its free system, the US could make 1982 the year of economic ''ping-pong diplomacy'' toward Pyongyang.