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Mr. Kim's Quest

For decades, the Korean Peninsula has been in a cold-war deep freeze. But a thaw, in the person of South Korea's new president, Kim Dae Jung, may be in progress. Mr. Kim's current tour of the United States - once his country of exile - serves that thaw. He hopes to shape a firm partnership with Washington to break through ice-bound relations with North Korea.

That grim land, beset by famine and economic dysfunction, still clings to a deadening, personality-cult form of Marxism. It retains one of the world's largest standing armies, and has shown only a muted willingness to end its state of war with the South.

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Kim, however, is not about to be deterred. The North's extremity is now joined with the South's economic crisis, part of the wider financial setback in Asia. The South Korean leader, whose former life as a gadfly for democracy taught him perseverance, clearly sees a unique opportunity. He'd like to bridge the gulf with North Korea even as he rebuilds the South's battered economy.

Toward the latter end, Kim has taken dramatic steps, OK'ing the purchase of South Korean stock by foreign investors and even hostile takeovers from abroad. Through such moves the president hopes to escape the wreckage caused by the old system of government-directed fiefdoms, whose bad decisions left companies awash in debt and overcapacity.

American help will be essential. During his visit, Kim will try to persuade US financiers that his reforms are the real thing, and that the Korean "miracle" will rise again.

That may be an easier sell than thawed relations with North Korea. Americans have seen little to convince them the North isn't its old, retrograde self. But a 1994 agreement to dismantle the North's weapons-capable nuclear program in exchange for new energy options, as well as earlier deals outlining steps toward reconciling the two Koreas, are starting points.

President's Kim's plea that Washington ease sanctions against the North as a way of enticing further movement deserves a careful hearing. This Korean leader is determined to break all the molds - including, perhaps, the one that keeps 37,000 American troops in his country.

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