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Out of calamity comes opportunity.

Nowhere is that maxim more apparent right now than in the two Koreas, where economic collapse in the democratic South may, paradoxically, provide a key to improved relations with the communist North.

Financial turmoil in the South and the accompanying victory of President-elect Kim Dae Jung provide a window of opportunity for peace that may be wider than at any recent time.

Kim, as the first outsider to break the grip of South Korea's ruling party, presents a new face and a new approach that gives North Korean leaders a face-saving means of getting serious at the bargaining table.

Officials in Pyongyang can point to this transition in the South and say that their antagonists have changed while they've remained constant. No longer bound by rhetoric aimed at the current government, they can negotiate more freely to re-enter the community of nations.

But equally as significant as a change in leadership in the South is the change in South Korea's economic fortunes. The need for a $57 billion bailout package -- and maybe more -- from the International Monetary Fund and a downgrading of Seoul's credit rating to "junk bond" status has left the proud South humiliated.

The urgency of South Korea's deepening troubles was accented even more recently when the IMF late last week advanced $2 billion in quickened loans, while Washington joined with Japan and five other industrialized nations in also accelerating $8 billion of the $57 billion rescue package in loans to Seoul by the middle of January.

Conversely, that economic comeuppance has left the North gloating -- and a lot less insecure. The fact that South Korea's fortunes have declined precipitously could make it easier for the North to feel like it's bargaining as an equal and a lot less defensive about coming to the table.

These latest developments could help build on the momentum already generated by the four-party effort to formally -- and finally -- end the Korean War.

Negotiations involving the two Koreas, China and the United States have proceeded haltingly, with the first formal high-level session held earlier this month in Geneva.

The talks are aimed at formally ending the Korean War. An armistice stopped the fighting 44 years ago. But tensions remain high, fueled by the North's suspected nuclear ambitions. Some 37,000 U.S. troops remain in the South -- much to the consternation of Pyongyang.

Finding a way to curb North Korea's nuclear threat and ease famine there while also dealing with the South Korean financial crisis will pose twin challenges for the United States, which has a significant interest in what happens on both sides of the border.

The U.S. interest in stemming North Korea's military tendencies has always been obvious. Now Seoul's deepening fiscal crisis -- part of a much larger one enveloping Asia -- also has ominous implications for trade and jobs here.

Both problems -- financial and military -- give the United States a huge stake in what happens on the Korean peninsula and in the success of Kim Dae Jung, who's been slow to grasp the severity of the economic problems and the tough measures required to fix them.

Moves like the World Bank decision to speed up such a large portion of the international aid package and to allow South Korea to use it to pay off loans now, rather than for a long-term cure like fixing its banking system, may help stem panic in the near term.

But the real solution is enlightened leadership that takes the long view. That must involve making the tough structural changes that the South Korean economy absolutely requires while also reaching out in a realistic manner that makes it easier for the North to bargain seriously for peace.

Washington must use its clout to push the new South Korean president down both of those paths if anything enduringly beneficial is to emerge from an otherwise daunting situation.

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