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Reconciliation in Korea

SOMETIMES in the global political drama, what might have happened -- but didn't -- can be as important as what actually happened. Conjecture is always risky, but history is full of events that ``might have been'' but were never realized -- such as failure to fashion a strong League of Nations after World War I that might have checked the intense nationalism of the 1920s and '30s. This comes to thought because of conflicting news stories out of Asia that the leaders of South Korea and North Korea may -- or may not -- meet later this year.

Japan's Kyodo News Service had reported that President Chun Doo Hwan of South Korea would meet with Communist Party leader Kim Il Sung of North Korea later this year to discuss the possibility of holding some events of the 1988 Olympic Games (now scheduled to be held in Seoul) in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

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South Korea denies that such a meeting is planned. Seoul also denies that key diplomats from the two nations met at the truce village of Panmunjom April 18 as a preliminary step to holding a presidential meeting and a jointly managed Olympics.

Diplomats from the two sides are to meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, next Tuesday to discuss the Olympics.

Winning the right to host the 1988 summer Olympics was quite a coup for South Korea, a nation undergoing a big economic spurt and eager to prove its mettle to the rest of the world. Not surprisingly, North Korea has wanted a cut of the pie in the form of joint sponsorship of the Olympics. Now Pyongyang recognizes that such a possibility is unlikely, so it is angling to get what it can -- such as the staging of a few events in North Korea.

Most intriguing in all this is how the coming of the Olympics to the Korean Peninsula has galvanized feelings to the level of considering joint meetings between the top leaders of both nations. The two sides, which fought each other in the bitter 1950-53 Korean war, have remained divided and hostile, despite entering into a number of discussions in recent years.

Why should there not be talks between Mr. Chun and Mr. Kim? If Reagan and Gorbachev -- not to mention the leaders of the two Germanys -- can talk, then surely the two Korean leaders can find the moment, and occasion, for meeting -- if not yet in reconciliation, then at least to consider joint participation in a global sports event designed to bring competing teams, and nations, together.

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