KOREAN unification may not be much closer now than it was before prime ministers from north and south met for discussion in Seoul last week. But last week's meeting clearly indicated a shift in the political winds. Such negotiations had been attempted before, but the parties had balked. Other recent efforts to give substance to reunification talk - opening the border for pro-unification rallies, organizing large cross-border visits of relatives - have hit the shoals of North Korean prickliness. The ministerial meetings happened, however, and that in itself was a breakthrough.
Much emphasis was placed on the symbolism of the occasion - the endless hand shakes before cameras and the lack of vitriolic language. But there was more. The south agreed to discuss, at an October follow-up meeting, the question of some kind of unified Korean representation at the United Nations. The North Koreans have long pushed for that, and even its placement on the agenda indicates some movement. The north, for its part, agreed to accelerate discussion of so-called ``confidence building'' measures, such as athletic and cultural exchanges, through committees set up for that purpose. Before, Pyongyang had insisted that these exchanges had to follow, rather than precede, reunification.
One factor hastening change on the peninsula is the rapidly transforming superpower backdrop to Korea's long-playing cold war drama. With the United States and the Soviet Union beginning to act more like allies than adversaries, states tied to one power or the other have to reconsider their own options. North Korea has been chilled by the growing warmth between Moscow and Seoul.
Korean political patterns aren't likely to change quickly - though the European transformations of 1989 may have permanently banished dogmatic pessimism in these matters. For now, a dialogue has begun. We hope it continues to expand next month in Pyongyang - and beyond.