It's cause for some hope that representatives of the two Koreas even sat down with each other recently in Beijing. The last such meeting was four years ago.
The session was initiated by North Korea, in anticipation of getting aid from the South in the form of much-needed fertilizer.
For its part, South Korea wanted a simple quid pro quo: a commitment to allow reunions of families separated since the end of the Korean War 45 years ago. The North bridled at that, calling it a political condition, and broke off the talks.
North Korea's quest for fertilizer springs from deepening problems in feeding its own people. The extent of famine has been difficult to ascertain, though some informed estimates put the death toll at three million. The highly secretive communist government in Pyongyang allows only sparse monitoring of the situation by international agencies. Officials of the UN World Food Program have sharply criticized the North for making it nearly impossible to ensure that aid reaches those most in need.
The South, mixing pragmatism and altruism, might go ahead and supply the fertilizer anyway. Then the outside parties should urge the North to allow monitors and agree to the South's desire to reunite families, a legitimate humanitarian concern.
The on-again-off-again thaw in North-South relations is credited to newly elected South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who is committed to reconciliation. A vehicle for achieving that goal exists in four-party talks - the two Koreas, the United States, and China - designed to resolve the Korean conflict.
Those talks have stalled. Now the US and China should push to revive them. Ultimately, North Korea's leaders have to be willing to break their self-constructed shell of insular, fear-encrusted rule.