Mr. CARTER put a surprise on his agenda in Seoul. Everyone knew he would give President Park of South Korea a dig of human rights but he also gained his agreement to propose joint talks with North Korea on eventual reunification. If the initiative is pursued carefully, it can be helpful, even if any results achieved are slight and slow in the coming, as they are likely to be.

It is unnatural that Korea should stand apart from the general international interest in easing the tensions of the four countries -- China, Germany, Vietnam, Korea -- left divided between Communist and non Communist grovernments as a result of World War ii. It is precisely those tensions that define the Cold War. The divisions in China, Vietnam and Germany have been treated in their respective fashions. For more that 30 years, the division in Korea has not.

It is sobering to recall how accidentally the division of Korea came about. With scant evident planning, the United States accepted the surrender of Japan's forces in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula and permitted the Soviet Union to accept the surrender in the north. As the Cold War hardened in other parts of the globe, the division in Korea was consolidated by the establishment of two Korean governments, each claiming to represent the whole country. Subsequently there was a military effect to unify the country -- the Korean War [1950 -- 53] -- but there has been no serious political effort to this day.

The two Koreas are profoundly distrustful, armed to the teeth and equipped with patrons [The United State for the South, the Soviet Union and China for the North] who so far have been unable to spur the two Koreas down the German/Chinese road of partial political accommodation. Certainly none of the patrons now commends the Vietnamese path -- war ending in total victory by one side -- to Korean national union.

In 1974 the two Koreas began direct talks but got nowhere.

South Korea was eager to go the "German" route by concentrating on "humanitarian" family-contact questions. North Korea, perceiving this as a threat to its poticial control, dug in its heels. North Korea has periodically tried end runs around Seoul, asking for talks just with the United States, which has wisely resisted this transparent effort to demoralize its South Korean allies. The Talks now contemplated meet Pyongyang's demand to bring in the United States and Seoul's demand to be part of any Korean talks in which Washington takes part. If this sounds to you like an intensely suspicious and frozen area of diplomacy, well, it is.

Jimmy Carter's own first sign of interest in Korea was his campaign pledge to withdraw American ground forces. Almost everyone now accepts that it was silly and dangerous 1) to move a piece on the Korean chessboard without first consulting Seoul and 2) to take a unilateral military step back without trying first to open negotations. Mr. Carter has now put the horse back in front of the cart, suspending further withdrawals and opting for talks. The pity is it took him the better part of his current term to do so. He does not have much time or political capital to expend on Korea, but perhaps some exploratory work can be done.

China and the Soviet Union are evidently being asked to use their influence to bring North Korea into the talks. This is complicated. They are rivals for influence in North Korea, which they both adjoin. If they respond, it no doubt will be to assert a larger role than urging North Korea into the fold of American diplomacy. In fact, No Korean solution may be possible without the participation of both Moscow and Peking. This is one regional diplomatic exercise in which, like it or not, they must be involved from the start.