It is worth remembering that only a few years ago there were no precedents on which to base an understanding of how regimes such as North Korea's might collapse, and how they might be replaced. Indeed there used to be a school of thought which said that once a totalitarian regime was established, there was no way out. Freedom stopped altogether. History (although the point was not expressed like this) stopped altogether.
Today we have many precedents for understanding how totalitarian regimes come to an end. Of particular interest to the South Koreans was the German example: the sudden collapse of the political superstructure, the demise of Eastern Europe's most vaunted economy, the economic cost of the West German takeover, the monetary problems, the bitterness of the aftermath as expressed in xenophobia and social unrest.
If North Korea is indeed due to suffer such a collapse, South Korea will keep in mind the lessons of the German experience. There will be no similar dash for convergence. And the Koreans can see, too, from other examples in Central Europe that what may at first look like the utter collapse of Communism, or of a personal dictatorship, has a way of heralding the re-establishment of some other form of power structure, as in the case of Romania. Something of North Korean society may survive the Kim Il Sung regime. How to deal with it? There is a wealth of evidence for the South Koreans to study as they ponder these problems.
And there is their own post-war history too, which has proceeded from extremes of military dictatorship to the current presidency of the former dissident leader Kim Young Sam. The essence of this history has been the gradual attempt to modernise a society in the grip of an un-modern military elite.
Democracy was seen as part of modern life - as were political parties and trade unions. South Korea wanted a successful modern economy, and the political gains of the last few years have been justified in terms of that goal. The economy drives the politics in the direction of freedom.
But the essence of the approach has been gradualist. The revolution that might have swept the dissident Kim Dae Jung to power was somehow simply not allowed. Instead, the military figure of Roh Tae Woo was, as it were, demilitarised and made a part of the modernising tendency. Then could follow the presidency of the more 'acceptable' of the dissidents, Kim Young Sam.
Along the way, many previously unthinkable things began to be thought. For instance, relations with China were established during the last years of military supremacy in Seoul. Such a move could be justified as a recognition of the facts of modern life, putting the interests of the economy ahead of the wild anti-Communist rhetoric of the past.
The latest, previously unthinkable thing is Kim Young Sam's response to the invitation to meet Kim Il Sung. On Saturday Jimmy Carter emerged from North Korea with this enticement. Within hours, Kim Young Sam had said: yes, let's meet, and the sooner the better.
Mr Carter's role in this has been presented as Chamberlain-like: he is appeasing the monster of the North, who is only interested in buying time for his nuclear schemes. Kim Il Sung has never honoured any agreement. On this occasion he has simply duped Mr Carter - who is anyway a fool and a willing dupe. And Mr Carter has possibly undermined President Bill Clinton's own policy of sanctions. The whole thing reeks of what you'd expect of a Carter-Clinton double act - fiasco upon fiasco.
But the president of South Korea does not seem to share this view - or he seems, at least, to prefer to go along with the offer from the North. And this might indicate that there is at least the basis for another interpretation of the options.
There are, of course, two separate issues at stake in the current crisis: there is nuclear non-proliferation, and there is the survival of South Korea. It would be natural for South Koreans to feel that the second takes precedence over the first. Yes the North may have a bomb, may soon have eight bombs. But it does not perhaps follow that war should be declared against the North right away, considering the consequences for the South.
The reported views of Karen Elliott House, an American foreign policy commentator credited by one paper with 'clear-headed pessimism', are that all soft choices are a fatal illusion, that there are only two choices: war or capitulation. Given such noises coming from America, it is not perhaps surprising that many South Koreans express more alarm about their allies in Washington than their 'enemies' to the North.
If Korea is one country, it is hardly likely that the South Koreans are going to welcome proposals of 'clear-headed pessimism': sure, go ahead, let's have surgical strikes on the North, followed by the bombardment of Seoul - why not? Let's sacrifice Korea on the altar of non-proliferation.
No, it's hard to see the South Koreans forgetting their own national interest so far. It's hard not to believe that they can see there's everything still to play for in their gradualist attempt to sort out the future of their divided country, and that it is worth giving Kim Il Sung the odd propaganda victory on the road to that goal.
South Korea wants to talk to the North. It is hard to believe that they have not thought carefully about this, and that they are the victims of some fatal soft-choice illusion.
It is true that Washington's interest is not the same as that of Seoul. It may not, for instance, be at all in South Korea's long-term interest to have the North's economy subject to sanctions and restrictions, just at a time when they may be about to face responsibility for baling out that economy anyway.
South Korea's interests lie in the direction of convergence and detente. And if Kim Young Sam welcomes the chance to meet with Kim Il Sung, I would say that his was a point of view worth respecting.Reuse content