IT IS WRONG to call the meetings between South Korea and North Korea "unification talks." They are talks about talks, organized to set terms on which substantive talks might later begin. If political discussions do ensue, their subject cannot conceivably be unification. Unification of the two Koreas, divided for 35 years by war and ideology, is totally out of the question. Unification is a matter for the generations, for history. It is a myth whose casual indulgence can only be prelude to misjudgment and disenchantment, perhaps worse. Of the four countries left divided by World War II, only Vietnam has been unified -- by conquest. China, Germany and Korea remain divided.

The two Koreas, meeting for the first time since their only previous talks died aborning in the 1970s, are simply looking for ways to relax tensions. This process starts in Korea from a condition of hostility that makes China/Taiwan and East German/West German relations at their worst look cozy, but it may produce results in time. Improving relations, slowly and ambiguously and marginally, is a far cry from unifying the country. But this is the realistic and right goal. On the geopolitical level, whatever Koreans can do to ease the threat of war serves the general good; in practical terms, this means deterring aggression by North Korea, which in a familiar tactic has been testing the South with a series of nasty raids. On the human level, the talks can perhaps crack the totalitarian grip by which North Korea has denied all but two or three families, of the millions separated by the 38th parallel, even a brief exchange of words for 30 years.

Jimmy Carter contributed to the talks by suspending his unilateral troop withdrawals, thus removing the obstacle to negotiation provided by Seoul's fear of abandonment and Pyongyang's hope to get something for nothing. His moves toward China seem to have had the secondary effect of tipping the Koreans, traditionally sensitive to realignments among their patrons, to approach each other. The administration's own bid to join talks with the two koreas fell flat last year, but it is encouraging the current Panmunjom talks now by word and, most important, by standing firm behind Seoul. The nationalism that makes North and South compete to champion unification is inclining them to try to reclaim at least some of Korea's destiny from the big outside powers. For the United States, low expectations, patience and minimal driving are in order.