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Korean foes jaw to finally to end war

On paper, but only on paper, it looks like a momentous occasion. This morning in New York, for the first time since it fizzled to an inconclusive end in 1953, the four principal combatants in the Korean War will sit around a single table and talk about peace. The talks, between North and South Korea, plus China and the US, have been the object of diplomatic toil since spring, when they were suggested by President Bill Clinton and President Kim Young Sam of South Korea.

The tag-line for the meetings is that they will eventually restore peace to Korea for the first time since the 1950-53 war, which ended in a ceasefire rather than a permanent treaty. But nobodyis expecting to hoist the bunting for a long time yet.

The initial goals are so modest as to appear footling: military exchanges between the rival armies, advance notification of exercises and crisis hot- lines. The US hopes to bring peace to Korea by offering Pyongyang supplies of fertiliser. Officials speak of offering their expertise in reforesting the mountains of the North.

But it turns out we have not even got that far. These subjects will be raised at the talks themselves, but today's meeting at Columbia University is only a talk about talks.

That the Koreas are sitting down to talk to one another is achievement enough, especially in company with the North's Korean War sponsor, China. But the modesty of the agenda emphasises how many diplomatic leagues there are to cross before any settlement is reached and how alarmingly isolated Pyongyang has become. There are few pointers on this road to peace and the one obvious precedent - reunification of East and West Germany - offers more differences than similarities.

Through television and radio, East Germany had been bathed in Western brand names and aspirations for years. In Korea,communication is almost non-existent. This is as much a consequence of Seoul 's paranoia as Pyongyang's totalitarianism. The only way out of North Korea is defection, but South Koreans who visit the North without permission are also imprisoned, and forbidden from phone, fax or postal communication.

South Korean engineers will soon make an unprecedented official journey to the North to install nuclear reactors to replace ones suspected of contributing to nuclear weapons. Yesterday special phone lines were opened for them to contact their families.

Given such mistrust, confidence-building measures are simply a humble recognition of political realities. "Just because they may have very low expectations for these talks, the talks can succeed in spite of it," a US official said in Washington. "You can't rule out results before you begin."

With time, it is hoped, they will lead to closer contact, although, with a worsening food crisis, it is unclear how much time North Korea has left.