The deadlock in talks between lawmakers from North and South Korea last week was hardly surprising: The gap between their positions was far too wide. But the lack of movement has left observers wondering where relations between the two deeply split halves of the Korean peninsula are heading now.
The immediate concern is whether the talks will lead to a safer environment in Korea, particularly for the Summer Olympic Games which begin on Sept. 17 in the South Korean capital of Seoul.
Is the threat of North Korean terrorism, of disruption of the games, diminished by these talks between bitter rivals?
There is no clear answer: It depends on how one looks at it.
For optimists, the mere fact that the contacts took place means progress. It was the first encounter since 1985 between North and South Korean representatives. Moreover, though they didn't agree on joint participation in the upcoming games, they did decide to meet again on Oct. 13, after the Olympics, to discuss reducing tension.
North Korea's willingness to continue talks seems to signal a peaceful Olympic Games. To disrupt the games, the logic goes, would be to endanger any propaganda gains it made in these talks.
The pessimist sees little evidence of flexibility in the North's posture. Both sides came to the table with long-held positions and neither gave much ground during the week-long talks. But they also clearly felt constrained not to bear responsibility for breaking off the talks - one reason that the North agreed to the South's proposal to meet again.
North Korea demanded a meeting of the entire legislature of both countries, plus representatives of outside groups, to be held at the end of the month in Pyongyang, its capital. The agenda would be focused on a proposed nonaggression pact which would include withdrawal of United States troops from the South and removal of all its alleged nuclear weapons. The North also pushed its demand to co-host the games, an option repeatedly rejected by both South Korea and the International Olympic Committee.
``I don't think North Korea has any interest in serious dialogue unless it gets onto the topic of getting US troops out of South Korea,'' says veteran South Korean commentator Park Kuon Song, a frequent critic of his government. ``And South Korea has no interest in talks on that particular agenda.''
The North Korean aim, suggests Mr. Park, was to ``try to create sympathy for their position in the South.'' North Korea may have been encouraged by the past year's political turmoil, the strengthening of the opposition parties in the South, and the rise of anti-Americanism. ``They made some propaganda success taking up the issue of nonaggression,'' says Park.
The North's political objectives are indicated in their insistent proposal for a massive meeting of parliaments and outside groups. This seems targeted at South Korea's opposition parties, which hold a majority in the National Assembly, and at the students and their dissident allies.
North Korea's maneuvers suggest to some that Pyongyang has not given up its effort to undermine the Olympics and cloud the South's moment of triumph. ``The minimum they would expect,'' argues a Western diplomat in Seoul, ``would be keeping world attention on North Korea as the South moves into the Olympics ... reminding everybody'' they are there.
Beyond that, the diplomat expresses a widely held concern that Pyongyang may still resort to some hostile action.
North Korea's ``record is so peculiar. Although it would be in their interest to keep this peaceful contact going, ... they don't see any contradiction between doing something peaceful and doing something violent,'' the diplomat said.
Pyongyang's actions during these past weeks, South Korean analysts say, are also influenced by its own domestic situation. ``They must justify their decision on the Olympics,'' says Park. North Korea's call for a boycott of the Seoul games unless their demand for co-hosting was met has been ignored by all their major communist allies. The decision by both China and the Soviet Union to attend has left North Korea conspicuously isolated.
But there are voices of criticism of the relatively uncompromising refusal to accept a proposal for large-scale talks.
``I am disappointed with the ruling party,'' says National Assemblyman Cho Se Hyong, a leading representative of the Party for Peace and Democracy. In Mr. Cho's view, a meeting of all the lawmakers would have had some significance in itself. ``If we went ahead,'' he says, ``it would be very good for securing the safety of the Olympic Games.''