A perilous sea-going tango between North and South Korea turned violent last week, when an exchange of gunfire sank one of the North's vessels. At issue was a rich fishing area claimed by both sides.
Such confrontations between the Koreas have an almost ritual quality - though a ritual fraught with danger. The Korean Peninsula continues to be a highly militarized, cold-war hot spot that refuses to cool. But of late, at least, it hasn't been for lack of trying.
Even as Korean gunboats - now joined by some intervening American ships - contest ocean boundaries, diplomatic activity is bubbling. The South and the North are attempting to hold talks in Beijing on reuniting families separated by the country's partition 54 years ago. The talks almost foundered on South Korea's late delivery of a promised shipment of fertilizer to the North, which is still gripped by famine. When that was cleared up, tempers flared anew over the recent sea battle, with the North demanding an apology.
The North Koreans appear to be following a long pattern of heightening conflict at critical moments. They added to the tensions this week by seizing a South Korean tourist and charging her with trying to persuade a North Korean to defect. This was the first such incident after many months of visits by southerners.
South Korea is typically quick to take up up the cudgels, but President Kim Dae Jung is determined to sustain a "sunshine" policy of reconciliation with the North.
The United States, with 37,000 troops still stationed in South Korea, has been trying to forge a policy that meshes with Seoul's. Above all, Washington wants to coax Pyongyang away from a destabilizing fixation on missile and nuclear-weapons technology. The North's recent willingness to allow US inspectors to examine a suspected nuclear site struck a hopeful note. Now Washington is reported to be offering an end to economic sanctions, heightened aid, and possible diplomatic recognition if the North will drop its trade in missiles and its nuclear aspirations. Later this year four-way talks between the Koreas, China, and the US will take up a final Korean peace settlement.
It remains unclear just when the North Koreans, still wedded to their peculiar form of Stalinism, will grasp the hands being extended in their direction and enter the world's mainstream. But change is slowly under way. The diplomatic initiatives should continue; they may yet bring overdue cooling to this world hot spot.