FOR many Westerners, it seems improbable that in this day of high technology and instant news analysis one might not be able to determine whether a promiment national leader is alive or the victim of a reported assassination. Yet that is precisely the situation the world community found itself in last week when many foreign ministries, for a period of more than a day, could not reliably confirm the status of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.
Mr. Kim, it turned out, is alive and well, or so pictures and reports out of Pyongyang indicate. And Seoul, meanwhile, finds itself embarrassed for having spread the ``Kim-is-dead'' story - a report that South Korea says occurred because of announcements supposedly heard emanating from North Korean loudspeakers along the two nations' border.
Hoax or not, the report about Kim Il Sung must be seen as more than a momentary bizarre incident between two longtime adversaries. The Korean Peninsula, after all, is one of the few genuine global hot spots - a place where some 40,000 United States troops are based.
For all their recent dabblings in mutuality - with Seoul and Pyongyang entering into talks on a number of issues, including the matter of joint inclusion in the 1988 Olympic Games scheduled to be held in South Korea - the two Koreas maintain a precarious balance. South Korea, for all its authoritarian tendencies, remains a robustly pluralistic society compared with the iron-tight grip of the North over its own people. North Korea is in many respects the quintessential police state, maintaining a standing Army far larger than its counterpart to the South.
The North, however, has been feeling itself more and more outdistanced by the South in recent years. Economically, South Korea has a much higher standard of living and has emerged as a major global trading nation; culturally, South Korea has been winning plaudits for playing host to this year's successful Asian Games as well as staging the coming 1988 Olympics; politically, South Korea, for all its problems in moving toward a more democratic society, is likely the more stable society. How so? In the North the country faces the transfer of leadership from the aging Kim to his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Il. It anticipated that the transition would take place without hitch. That may or may not actually happen.
Is there actually any danger of renewed turmoil on the Korean Peninsula? Probably not, in the sense that few military or political analysts expect an imminent invasion from the North. What is worrisome has been the continued military buildup in the North in past years - and the movement of so many military units and facilities closer and closer to the DMZ between the two nations.
Which brings us back to the reports of Kim's death: The fact that so little could be known about his status is a sharp reminder that little is known about present and future North Korean political and military intentions. That cannot be reassuring.
The report, and subsequent confusion in the South, is also a reminder that South Korea needs to put its own government household in order. South Korea needs to continue its drive toward full modernization - not just economically, but politically.
In the long run, the best defense against authoritarianism is not just military strength, important as that is, but the commitment and loyalty of the South Korean people.