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Korean Dtente, Then What?

Listen closely, and you can hear an iceberg from the cold war melting on the Korean Peninsula.

Still armed for war, the two Koreas are nonetheless warming up to each other as they build on agreements from their historic summit last June.

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The first family reunions since the 1950-53 war were held last month, with two more expected in coming months. Plans for a rail link across the world's most heavily armed border are on track. And North Korea has even signaled it welcomes American soldiers staying put for the sake of regional stability.

Keeping GIs in the region is important because the prospect of reduced military tensions between the Koreas is already altering the balance of power between the neighboring giants of China, Russia, and Japan.

All three have historically battled for influence in the region, with Korea as pawn. It was the Korean standoff during the cold war, along with the presence of 37,000 GIs, that helped keep old antagonisms at bay.

But like Europe after German reunification, these three giants are seeking a new role in Northeast Asia as the Koreas edge toward peace.

A Russia-Japan summit this week failed to end an islands dispute which keeps them technically at war. Historical hostility between China and Japan erupted again when Japan wanted to link its massive economic aid to Beijing to territorial concerns.

And a threat from North Korea's missiles has pushed Japan to think of a missile-defense system. That would also reduce its vulnerability to China's missiles - a military leverage that the Chinese don't want to lose.

So much hangs on the small steps toward peace between the Koreas, especially the North's negotiations with the US to shelve its missile program.

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Past attempts at dtente have failed when the North proved duplicitous. That's why it's important in coming months to see if it seeks food aid and investment only to boost its forces, but refuses to make security concessions, such as setting up a hotline or holding military talks.

Another test is whether North Korea's Kim Jong Il will make a reciprocal trip to the South. This second summit would signal that the hermit-like North and its reclusive leader are coming in from the cold.

North Korea can expect outside help only if it helps itself first.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society