Spy saga damages hopes of lasting peace in Korea

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Diplomats from Seoul, Washington and Tokyo will today begin a series of meetings in New York in an attempt to salvage hopes of a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula as forces from the South hunt the last of a group of shipwrecked northern spies.

Relations between the two Koreas are at their lowest ebb for more than two years after a North Korean submarine ran aground on the South Korean coast last week while apparently on a spying mission. Twenty-one of the vessel's crew have been killed or captured in a manhunt that has also left three South Korean soldiers and one civilian dead.

But the greatest damage has been diplomatic: after several indecisive months, the submarine incident puts paid to hopes of a speedy settlement of the Korean problem. As recently as May, there were reasons for optimism. At a bilateral summit on the island of Cheju, South Korea's President Kim Young Sam and the US President, Bill Clinton, announced a joint proposal for peace talks involving the two Koreas and their respective Korean War allies, America and China.

Since food shortages last year, caused by heavy floods and a chronically stagnant economy, the North has been badly in need of outside help, and as recently as last week, officials were saying they needed "further clarification" of the proposal for talks. The US, South Korea and Japan have since discussed ways of making talks attractive to the North, possibly with the promise of further aid or diplomatic contacts. But circumstances have conspired to make compromise with the North an unattractive prospect.

In the United States, an election is being fought between two parties whose only important foreign policy difference concerns Korea: the Republican presidential candidate, Bob Dole, has made it clear he opposes aid for the North, while it would be disastrous for Mr Clinton to be seen cosying up to a Communist dictatorship.

Japan has also been distracted by an imminent general election; and in South Korea the incident has played into the hands of hardliners who oppose any concessions to Pyongyang.

Yesterday, at the end of a visit to Sweden, the US Defense Secretary, William Perry, rejected North Korea's claim that the "spy" submarine was on a routine mission. But he stressed the need for calm.

The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, will meet tomorrow with the South Korean Foreign Minister, Gong Ro Myung. In private, at least,Seoul is certain to call for a tougher line, and neither Washington nor Tokyo will be in a position to disagree.