North and South Korea are talking again - but only just. Northern commodity relief aid to southern victims of recent extensive floods has provided North and South Korea a rare opportunity to agree on something for a change.
But it's far too early to say whether this humanitarian gesture can help lead the two sides out of the labyrinth of mutual hostility created by the Korean war. Even reaching agreement on how and where the relief goods should be delivered proved difficult in a climate of deep mistrust.
The two sides quickly agreed on the west coast port of Inchon and eastern port of Pukyong for shipborne deliveries, but the South balked over a North Korean proposal that the portion of goods being carried over land should be delivered direct to flood victims in Seoul by North Korean trucks.
Instead, South Korea insisted the goods be handed over at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) truce village of Panmunjom - thus eliminating the North's direct contact with South Korean citizens and its opportunity for propaganda and a bit of discreet spying.
The negotiations immediately broke down, a not uncommon occurrence in North-South contacts. But, surprisingly, North Korea without further demur accepted the idea of Panmunjom deliveries.
Radio Pyongyang, monitored in Tokyo, reported a convoy of about 100 trucks left the northern capital Monday. The North Korean Central News Agency also claimed that the Seoul government had issued a special police alert to prevent Pyongyang from taking advantage of the delivery of relief supplies to infiltrate spies. KCNA said this was an attempt to repress what it called ''popular sentiments'' for the North in response to its humanitarian relief gesture.
The fact that the negotiations, conducted by representatives of the respective Red Cross societies, reached agreement at all is certainly a small step in the right direction.
In the early 1970s, in a fanfare of publicity, Red Cross talks were begun to examine ways of developing people-to-people contacts across the DMZ as a first step toward eventual reunification. But the discussions quickly collapsed amid mutual recriminations alleging lack of genuine interest in doing anything beyond scoring propaganda points.
Sporadic shooting incidents across the DMZ, discovery of several alleged northern invasion tunnels under the heavily fortified line, and repeated clashes with alleged North Korean infiltrators at various points around the southern coast further soured the climate.
The last time the two sides tried to negotiate was in June over a proposal for a joint North-South team for the Los Angeles Olympic Games. But the talks quickly mired in political squabbles and got nowhere.
Now, however, the signs are a little more hopeful.
Apart from the extremely limited direct contacts, Japan is working hard to promote its role as an honest broker between Seoul and Pyongyang, and there are a number of Japanese who detect signs of a more pragmatic attitude by the North Koreans.
Masashi Ishibashi, chairman of the opposition Japan Socialist Party, recently visited Pyongyang and held more than five hours of talks with President Kim Il Sung. Mr. Ishibashi returned convinced that Mr. Kim's proposal for tripartite talks between the two Koreas and the United States was a genuine attempt to achieve detente on the peninsula and not merely another northern diplomatic maneuver to get US troops out of the South. Ishibashi also quoted Kim as expressing the desire for good relations with Washington.
Other Socialist Party officials said the most noticeable aspect of the trip was the absence in Pyongyang of attacks or name-calling against the South Korean government, Japan, or the United States.
With Kim's response regarded as so positive, the Socialists, Pyongyang's most durable ally, see themselves in a major role as a ''political bridge'' between Pyongyang and the West. Japan's Socialist Party is about to initiate its first-ever contacts with South Korea, although for the moment these will be on an unofficial basis with ''the Korean people'' rather than with the government.
The Japanese government also wants to help achieve a rapprochement between North and South Korea. For example, it promoted the idea of both Koreas being admitted simultaneously to the United Nations. But Pyongyang has formally rejected this as freezing the existing division of the country and promoting Japanese dominance of the South.