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Next Step : Looking for a Cold War? Try Korea : High-level peace talks are scheduled, but rapprochement remains a distant dream on the divided peninsula.


SEOUL — Anyone who thinks the Cold War is over had better take a look at the Korean Peninsula before uncorking the champagne. Capitalists and Communists still hate each other here. South Korea and North Korea remain mutually suspicious, equally recalcitrant and dangerously armed to the teeth--with some help from U.S. ground troops and Soviet weapons salesmen.

Rhetoric about peace and reunification may be sacrosanct on both sides of the demilitarized zone, but so far neither of the two Koreas has demonstrated a real commitment to ending four decades of throat-rattling enmity.

Never mind that East and West Germany made their peace and are rapidly reintegrating their systems. Korean rapprochement remains an absurd game of bluff and bluster.

That was the case earlier this month, when authorities went through the motions of preparing to throw open, temporarily, part of their heavily fortified border.

The plan was to hold a "pan-national" reunification rally at the truce village of Panmunjom, and to allow free travel between north and south to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan--and its division between U.S. and Soviet spheres of influence--at the end of World War II. But hard-line officials on both sides sabotaged the initiatives with objections over procedural details.

Next week, Korean incorrigibility is likely to take center stage once again when the prime ministers of the rival regimes are scheduled to meet in Seoul for what would nominally be the highest level of political contact ever between north and south.

The three-day meeting stands a good chance of being scuttled at the last minute, though, especially now that the aborted border-opening experiment has poisoned the air. But if the meeting takes place it could lead to a second round of talks scheduled for October in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, and mark a modest breakthrough in relations.

Still, despite the appearance of movement, no one is anticipating much in the way of tangible results that would set the two Koreas on a course of reconciliation. Both sides have far more to lose than to gain by opening up at this time.

At stake is the rigid ideological control each side keeps over its populace.

North Korea wants to isolate its Stalinist system from the wave of political reform sweeping socialist countries in Eastern Europe. And South Korea wants to guard its convoluted society of extreme poverty and showy affluence from the seeds of revolution.

Ever vigilant against a fifth column, South Korean police recently rounded up 37 people--including 10 soldiers--suspected of plotting to overthrow the government. They allegedly were part of a clandestine group called the Revolutionary Class Struggle Union, with ties to former student radicals.

The prevailing view among the conservative rulers in the south is that North Korea still would like to reunify the peninsula through force, as it attempted to do by invading the south at the onset of the 1950-53 Korean War. But because the continued deployment of American troops puts the Vietnam model for reunification out of Pyongyang's reach, Seoul believes the north's strategy is to destabilize the south through propaganda and covert means.

At the same time, a boom in economic development has made the capitalist south so robust that eventually the north will be overwhelmed and forced to capitulate in a German-style model of peaceful reunification, most South Korean analysts contend.

That's why the Seoul government is in no hurry to rush to the negotiating table, or to make concessions to its anachronistic Communist foe.

"Time is definitely on our side," said the head of a private think tank in Seoul. "We can wait until hell freezes over."

Nevertheless, South Korean President Roh Tae Woo has set an ambitious timetable for national reunification, which he says can be realized in the next decade. Since taking office at the beginning of 1988, the former army general has blithely engineered a diplomatic thaw with the north's socialist allies, culminating in his surprise summit in San Francisco with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in June.

But with North Korea still demonized, many southerners are confused and anxious about their national destiny.

"I want to die out of frustration," said Shim Myong Shik, 60, a construction contractor in suburban Seoul who attended a government-sponsored rally near the border Aug. 13, when a five-day period of free travel between the two Koreas was supposed to begin.

Shim had hoped to go north to try to find his parents and brother, from whom he was separated--like millions of his countrymen--during the Korean War. But the Seoul government called off the border crossing, originally proposed by President Roh himself. Seoul blamed North Korea's refusal to issue written guarantees of safe passage for travelers.

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