AS war clouds once again darken the Korean Peninsula, they emphasise several grim but enduring realities. Unlike the Vietnam War, the Korean War was merely suspended 30 years ago with a diplomatic truce, and a political stalemate. The peace treaty envisaged by the 1953 armistice agreement was never negotiated, let alone signed. The armistice itself was only brought about when newly installed American President Dwight Eisenhower convinced Moscow and Beijing that his threat to use the United States' recently tested tactical nuclear weapons in the cause of peace was for real. The two then allies of North Korea convinced Pyongyang that it must sign the ceasefire. It has been a cold and occasionally hot truce ever since, retaining the characteristics of both international conflict and civil war. A key ingredient remains that Korea is divided by conflicting concepts of reunification. The Great and Wise Leader, North Korean President Kim Il-sung, and his chosen successor in the only communist dynasty, Dearly Beloved Son and Leader Kim Jong-il, have never given any indication that they have abandoned all hope of achieving what they narrowly failed to achieve in 1950 - re-unifying the peninsula by force. Yet the South refused to sign the truce in 1953. Seoul has never done so, because of its passionate belief that the peninsula must be unified. In the past few years particularly, the South has too easily succumbed to the belief that victory will come - quickly or slowly - in the same way as it arrived in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, through the collapse of communism in the North. So, as well over a million troops continue to glare at each other across the Korean demilitarised zone (DMZ), a mere 72 kilometres from Seoul at its closest point, the Cold War in East Asia is far from over. Another round in the Korean civil war is not impossible. The present fears of war arise primarily because 1993 has added four disturbing trends to these enduring realities. First, North Korea last March drew attention to the distinct likelihood that it was acquiring the very nuclear weapons with which it had been threatened in the past, when it announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) and from any further inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). After years of refusing any IAEA inspections, the North announced its withdrawal just as the IAEA was insisting on inspections of sites which could provide vital clues on the amount of plutonium possessed by the North. These clues could indicate whether the North was close to having its own atomic bombs. Until now, South Korea, the US and the United Nations have been unable to persuade the North to reverse its decision. Pyongyang has merely suspended its withdrawal but has continued to reject all IAEA inspections. Second, North Korea has also withdrawn from the once-promising dialogue between the two Koreas. North-South talks had seemed to be productive in 1991-92. They led to the signing of both a non-aggression pact between the two halves of the divided nation and a statement pledging the de-nuclearisation of Korea. The steps pledged under these and other pacts have all fallen by the wayside this year. The dialogue has also ended. The best that can be inferred from all this is that the dialogue has failed due to personnel changes within the Pyongyang Government, notably the increase of Kim Jong-il's power. The worst inference is that the North only pursued the pacts to better conceal both its nuclear bomb-making and its still-aggressive intentions, hoping to lower South Korea's guard. Third, these two developments coincided with the arrival in office of freshly elected administrations in Seoul and Washington. Both are politically inclined to try a softer, more hopeful line of approach with North Korea. President Kim Young-sam wanted to distinguish his government from its military-dominated predecessors. President Bill Clinton wanted no international crisis to intrude on his priority of domestic change. It seems likely that North Korea quickly equated the dovish stance of its two adversaries as weakness. It certainly matched US conciliatory gestures with its own special brand of intransigence. In two rounds of negotiations with the US, and then with South Korea, North Korea's 1993 posture has seemed little different from the uncompromising way in which it conducted itself during the protracted truce negotiations between 1951 and 1953. It has sought only to take but not to give. There have been other disquieting signs. As the third-ranking official in the State Department, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Peter Tarnoff, gave his controversial May 24 briefing promising a reduced US profile in the world, he reminded Korean experts that the 1950 North Korean invasion of the South came six months after another blunder. Tarnoff's 1950 counterpart, Dean Acheson, then made a speech in Washington placing South Korea outside US security concerns. When President Clinton indicated, vis-a-vis Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti, that avoiding American casualties was a key principle of US foreign policy, North Korean willingness to respond to US diplomatic carrots seemed to disappear. As President Kim Young-sam appointed a well-known dove as his Minister for Reunification Affairs, the North-South dialogue ground to a complete halt. Fourth, at the precise moment when North Korea seemed bent on making an aggressive challenge, policy in both of the governments concerned with meeting it was muddled by endless in-fighting between resurgent hawks and long-frustrated doves. The South Korean press did not hesitate to level charges of ''appeasement''. President Clinton has faced fewer such charges, but he nonetheless belatedly realised that a war by default - caused by North Korean miscalculation - was a risk not worth taking. That explains his firm words on the Bridge of No Return when he visited the demilitarised zone in July, and his recent affirmation that an attack on South Korea by the North would be an attack on the United States. Yet overall, 1993 has still been the year of the carrot. American and South Korean negotiators have been exceedingly patient in the face of the North Korean hardline posture. Deadlines for Pyongyang's compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and with IAEA inspections have been extended or forgotten. Washington and Seoul have hinted they may end or suspend their joint military exercises. Other negotiating positions have been moderated. Sanctions against North Korea have been avoided, and US willingness to recognise North Korea has been indicated. Until now, the North has simply not been interested in these attempts to defuse tension. Despite, and even because of, the absence of any North Korean reciprocity, American doves are still arguing for more carrots. A consequent sub-plot has been increasing South Korean irritation with America-centric plans which ignore the resumption of North-South dialogue as one critical diplomatic objective. This was the complex background to President Clinton meeting with President Kim Young-sam in Washington this past week. The two leaders announced that there would, at long last, be an agreed stick. North Korea was finally told that it must allow IAEA inspections before any US or South Korean concessions will be made. In this way, the US and South Korea at last sought to rectify the damaging image that has arisen from the way they have handled the developing crisis. The many carrots offered to North Korea have implied that any states seeking their own nuclear weapons will be politically rewarded if they leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Clinton-Kim Young-sam meeting has been variously hailed as a victory for the hawks or a victory for the doves. Both views are facile. More accurately, the hawks won a tactical success with the insistence on revived IAEA inspections, but the doves still appear to be in charge of strategy. It is not even clear that IAEA inspection of the two suspected nuclear sites is an emphatic condition in the Clinton-Kim Young-sam package. If North Korea merely re-admits IAEA inspectors to renew already existing IAEA monitoring devices, that may be enough. President Kim Young-sam probably deflected any South Korean charges of appeasement by insisting that the onus be on North Korea to first comply with IAEA inspections, and so appearing to veto any unilateral US initiatives. But he still agreed with the US desire to indicate to North Korea what concessions were in store for Pyongyang, once that basic condition had been met. North Korean diplomats at the UN in New York were informed of these possible concessions by American officials on Wednesday. No immediate, definitive North Korean answer to these inducements is expected. The crisis will drag on. Perhaps there is a faction fight going on in Pyongyang, which inhibits any positive response. Or maybe the two Kims, father and son, are happily playing for time so they can complete a few nuclear weapons. Whatever the truth about North Korean intentions, no outsiders are aware of it. North Korea remains remote and hostile, unknown and unyielding. It has missiles for export but not enough rice for its people. US-South Korean military exercises, like ''Team Spirit'', were instituted to guard against Pyongyang's unpredictability. The unilateral offer is being made to suspend or end the exercises, but that unpredictability remains unaltered. Two additional uncertainties keep the war clouds hovering. There is no knowing where the intense Korean passion for unification may lead. For many foreigners, renewed Korean conflict seems irrational and therefore unlikely. But there is also no knowing whether the two North Korean Kims, faced with the possibility of collapse, will not indulge in one last throw of the dictatorial dice to try to complete what they were forced to halt in 1953.