Korea Test of War, Peace

Not many people beyond the closeted confines of the so-called Hermit Kingdom will be toasting the occasion, but let the record show that July 8 marked the third anniversary of the death of Kim Il Sung, the communist ruler of North Korea for 46 years. So who cares? Well, it is also the end of the three-year mourning period for the late ruler, who is regarded as a genius political theoretician in North Korea, but almost everywhere else as a demented tyrant of the worst sort. With mourning over, the time for his son, Kim Jong Il, the titular boss, to take full command is upon us.

But the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo recently spoke for many outside North Korea by calling on the 55-year-old son to step down. Fat chance. Indeed, distinctly unamused, Kim Jong Il's followers lashed back by threatening to "level'' the newspaper building in Seoul, "punish the vicious editors'' and -- this threat perhaps hurt the most -- never subscribe to Chosun Ilbo even if it were the last newspaper on earth.

Welcome to the Korean peninsula, home of the world's most dangerous dysfunctional family. These two halves of ancient Korea have shared -- since the end of the Korean War 44 years ago -- an intense mutual dislike that has stymied anything even approaching reasoned dialogue. But forever? Maybe not. For, even as the two tribes in the North and the South were diatribing, their diplomats in New York last week were making far more sensible noises in two separate negotiations that belied the bilateral bickering.

Both talks in New York were refereed by third parties to make sure no one bit anyone else's ear off. In one ring, at the Palace Hotel, Acting Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Charles Kartman, together with a well-behaved South Korean delegation, coaxed North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan into a commitment to participate in four-party talks, which would include China. And in the other ring, at the headquarters of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, a relatively new 10-nation international organization, North Korean diplomat Ho Jong inked 19 separate understandings to pave the way for work in his country on a pair of nuclear power reactors. They are to be built in return for the regime's ending its nuclear weapons program.

American negotiators are suddenly hopeful. As Stephen Bosworth, KEDO's executive director -- he's slated to become the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea -- told me: "There's no denying that as the North inched closer to four-party talks, it made our job at KEDO easier. For the moment, the lights on the Korean political front are flashing, if not green, then at least amber. On the whole, everything is slightly upbeat.'' But optimism tends to escape most Koreans, on either side of the Pacific, because of their total distrust of the North's leaders. Warns Charles Kim, the executive director of the Los Angeles-based Korean American Coalition: "North Korea will do whatever it can -- bluff, cheat, lie" to con Washington into complacency.

Maybe so, but a widening circle of desperation appears to be calling the bluff of those very same liars and cheaters. The respected United Nations World Food Program goes so far as to predict that North Korea, still brandishing one of the largest standing armies in the world but writhing from serious food shortages, faces "one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of our lifetime.''

In the past the Soviet Union and/or China could have propped up this failed state; but the former isn't around anymore and the latter is weary of propping. Another world force, CNN, might be able to rescue North Korea with its patented television images of starving babies that would mist up the world's eyes -- if only the North would open its gates to the world.

Is it so desperate that it's starting to do that? Last week the United Nations announced that the North had agreed to allow UN staff unlimited access to distribute aid. As Bosworth said, "It was a pretty good week.''

Watching all these developments is China, haunted by old fears about any process that might create a united Korea on its border. Indeed, with the ballyhooed handover of Hong Kong out of the way, Korea looms as the new test for West and East. Can China rise above its fears -- as the former Soviet Union never could about a united Germany? Maybe.

President Bill Clinton must work hard to assuage both China and the U.S. Congress. He must somehow neutralize the old buzzards and young whippersnappers on the Hill who would like nothing more than to stir up tension with Beijing. That would send a whole new chill across the Korean peninsula. Clinton, who tends to have the international attention span of a gnat, needs to focus like a laser on Korea. Though only about the size of Utah, it's the big testing field where the next major war might break out. Or the next major peace.

Tom Plate, a Los Angeles Times columnist, also teaches communication and policy studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.