In spite of the current dialogue between North and South Korea, chances for their reunifying in the near future still look dim. But diplomacy may yet win out over a military solution on this divided peninsula.
A recent statement by North Korean President Kim Il Sung, widely publicized in the local news media, is a strong indication that the 73-year-old ``Great Leader'' doubts that he will see the two Koreas united in his lifetime.
``If the country is not reunified in our generation, it surely will be in the era of Kim Jong Il, who will continue to fight by carrying forward the cause,'' Kim Il Sung said.
The question is how his son, who appears to have taken over the bulk of presidential functions, plans to tackle the issue. Will he follow Kim Il Sung's lead, or will he seek to consolidate power with military action?
There is a growing impression among North Korea observers here and abroad that both Kims are pinning their hopes for reunification on political and psychological means rather than on the military approach. The reasons are: the military superiority of United States-backed South Korea; the devastation that North Koreans expect would come with another war; and the North's awareness that neither China nor the Soviet Union wants a war on the Korean pennninsula.
Statements by North Korean officials suggest the following rationale for using peaceful methods:
The political turmoil in the South, which the North encourages, may lead to overthrow of the present regime in Seoul (regarded here as a puppet of the US) and its replacement by a ``patriotic and nationalistic'' government that would be more sympathetic to reunification under North Korean conditions.
The current North-South dialogue might inspire more South Korean (and US) confidence in Pyongyang's intentions. That, they believe, would pave the way for trilateral talks -- between Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang -- on the North's proposal for peace with the US and on a nonaggression treaty with the South, leading ultimately to a confederation.
The North's overtures for peace and dialogue may impress world -- particularly US -- public opinion and may lead to a reconsideration of policy by Washington and a withdrawal of US troops from South Korea.
Officials in Pyongyang express satisfaction that the situation is moving well in those directions. They are encouraged by recent outbursts of South Korean student unrest and opposition to the regime of President Chun Doo Hwan in Seoul, as well as by the favorable reaction their overtures have received worldwide.
But Western analysts caution that a possible North Korean invasion cannot be entirely ruled out because of the current leadership succession. Some believe that the 43-year-old Kim Jong Il may seek a military solution because he did not experience firsthand the devastation of the 1950-53 war. The recent acquisition of advanced MIG-23 jets (more than a dozen are reported to have been delivered to Pyongyang so far) has also caused some concern in South Korean and Western circles.
But North Korean officials flatly reject claims of Pyongyang's intention to resort to force.
``We are well aware of what war means,'' said Ryu Hae Yong, a political analyst speaking for the government. ``It means complete destruction. And we do not want our country and economy, which we worked very hard to rebuild, to be devastated.''
The North Koreans are likely to pursue their diplomatic campaign to force the US and South Korea to agree to tripartite talks. But they acknowledge that their ultimate goal of complete US troop withdrawal and a nonagression treaty with the South cannot be easily attained.
In order to keep the climate favorable to negotiations on the larger issues, North Korea seems eager to continue talking on the lesser ones -- such as contacts between the 10 million members of ``divided families'' (families broken up by the partitioning of Korea in 1945), trade exchanges, and joint economic projects.
Vice-Premier Chong Jung Gi said in an interview that North Korea is not putting preconditions on tripartite talks. He said that a withdrawal of American troops would not have to precede an agreement and that a continuation of North-South dialogue at the border town of Panmunjom will not be connected to the tripartite talks.
``These are two-track talks,'' he said. ``The Panmunjom dialogue can end mutual mistrust. If we succed there, we could have higher-level talks between the South and the North. But it is essential that talks be held to end more than three decades of a state of no war, no peace. It is time to replace the armistice with a permanent peace. And we want to have peaceful relations with the US.''