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Korean enemies gather for talks

New efforts begin today to end one of the Cold War's last remaining confrontations - the division of the Korean peninsula.

New York will be the venue for a meeting intended to kick off a series of four-party talks between North and South Korea, China and the United States. Today, South Korea and the US will detail their plans for the gatherings at a "briefing" meeting with North Korea. It has been difficult enough to get Pyongyang to attend this meeting - it has cancelled twice; but a team of North Korean officials has already arrived, as has the team from Seoul, and the expectation is that the meeting will take place as planned.

The encounter comes at a time of maximum instability in North Korea. The death or departure from office of a number of key figures in the regime seems to indicate a power struggle as Kim Jong Il, son of long-time dictator Kim Il Sung, seeks to underpin his authority.

A senior defector from Pyongyang, Hwang Jan-yop, is holed up in the South Korean embassy in Peking, with the North demanding that he be returned to Pyongyang and the South that he be allowed to go to Seoul, as he has requested. China said yesterday that it hoped the crisis could be resolved soon, and expectations are still high in Seoul that he will arrive in the next seven days.

The defection has sparked a war of words between Seoul and Pyongyang, with the South claiming that the death of Kim Il Sung resulted from a heart attack after a violent row with his son. The North has riposted angrily, claiming that Seoul is acting provocatively.

There is clearly some nervousness in Seoul about the military situation, with security at government buildings increased and a security exercise underway yesterday. The North's economy is collapsing, with food due to run out in the spring and international food aid insufficient to fill the gap. China is reported by the South Korean media to have established shelters for fleeing North Koreans.