Hopes rise for talks with N Korea

South Korea, the United States and Japan will emerge today from a two- day conference aimed at setting up talks with communist North Korea, in an atmosphere of cautious optimism about the prospects for peace on the peninsula.

The meeting, on the South Korean island of Cheju, is the latest in a series of diplomatic initiatives designed to defuse tension between Seoul and Pyongyang since a tense interlude last month, when troops from the communist North illegally entered the demilitarised zone between the two countries. Its focus has been a proposal, made last month by President Bill Clinton and the South Korean President, Kim Young-sam, for peace talks between the two Koreas, plus the US and China - the four signatories of the Korean Armistice, which brought an uneasy end to the Korean War in 1953.

Ever since then, the two sides have faced one another off across the heavily armed demilitarised zone. All attempts at dialogue between the two Koreas have failed. The North has taken to insisting that it will talk peace with the US alone, but the thought of being left out of any treaty terrifies Seoul, even more than the possibility of a last ditch attack by a desperate North Korean military.

Since the Clinton-Kim proposal, however, the atmosphere has warmed. While it has not yet formally responded to the idea of the four-way talks, Pyongyang has asked for more details on the proposal, and desisted from further provocations on the border. China has been cautiously positive and the South Koreans seem to be overcoming their fear of being sidelined.

Freed of domestic political pressures by its success in recent elections, the government has decided to give the North Korean situation the serious diplomatic attention it requires.

Three days ago, the US ambassador to Seoul, James Laney, delivered a striking speech which recast 43 years of US-South Korean policy on the peninsula. "In the absence of other tools with which to change its circumstances, the North may look for other ways of using the only remaining asset which commands international respect - military might," he told a conference in Seoul. "We should tone down our rhetoric and lurid language [and] realise that they are driven not by arrogance but by insecurity ... Everyone's interests are served by economic assistance to the North, reduction of tensions, and comprehensive North-South engagement."