As American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wings her way through Europe this week, her attention has been diverted eastward, to the Korean peninsula. There, in the last bastion of cold-war hostility, tensions have again clouded Washington's hopes for negotiations and a formal peace.
The defection last week in Beijing of a highly placed North Korean intellectual jarred the already tottering communist North. Hwang Jang Yop has been a confidant of former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and a tutor to his son, Kim Jong Il, who is trying to consolidate his hold on power. Mr. Hwang is known as a foremost exponent of the North's philosophy of juche, or rigid self-reliance.
The shooting of another North Korean defector in Seoul, presumably by agents of the North, was taken as retaliation for the Hwang incident. The South reacted with alarm, heightening military readiness against terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, the United States, a military and diplomatic presence on the peninsula ever since an armistice ended the Korean conflict in 1953, is hurrying to salvage a multifaceted peacemaking effort. The US would like to start four-party talks - the two Koreas, the US, and China - designed to arrive at a formal peace treaty between North and South. It also wants to move ahead with an agreement to provide light-water nuclear energy technology to the North in exchange for dismantling old nuclear plants capable of producing warhead material. Finally, the US, together with South Korea, is undertaking a relief effort to help the North survive a deepening food shortage.
All these initiatives can help lay a basis for lasting peace on the Korean peninsula. And peace there can relax tensions throughout Asia. China, Japan, the US, and Europe have big economic and political stakes in consigning the Korean conflict to history.
But the key changes of heart have to come in Seoul and Pyongyang. Many fervent anticommunists in the South still hope for a catastrophic collapse in the North. But the results of that, in desperate northern moves and floods of refugees, could be extreme. In the insular North, many still bridle at direct talks with the South. Yet that dialogue has to come, helped along by Washington, Beijing, and others who can see a bigger picture than a half century of internecine strife.