THE ASTONISHING NEWS from East Asia is that the splenetic communist hermit state of North Korea is delivering "flood aid" to South Korea, with which it has been in an unyielding state of war for 34 years. The South did not need the aid but, rather than let Pyongyang score an unopposed propaganda coup, decided to mute and match the gesture by accepting it. These two states, which warred in the 1950s and later spent five unavailing years trying to arrange simple human contacts, agreed in days on the terms of delivery. The stuff is coming in now.

South Korea is immensely wary of the North's policital strategy, and of a possible military trap. Just a year ago, North Korea tried to assassinate the whole South Korean leadership -- in Rangoon. Its tunnels under the DMZ are legendary. No nation has a more deserved reputation for barbarity and duplicity over the last 30-odd years. But Seoul is going ahead all the same.

Korea came to be divided only by the accidential manner of its liberation from Japan -- partly by Soviet forces, partly by American -- at the end of World War II. But Koreans remain one people, bound by ties of family as well as national kinship. The first purpose of each Korean state has always been to portray itself as the authentic vehicle of Korean nationalism and to project its fidelty to the goal of ultimate reunification. From these deep wells of Korean emotion presumably comes the impetus for the offer and the reception of the aid now.

It is ironic that the North should be sending aid to the South. The North, from all accounts, is a pitiable place economically, as well as a police state so harsh as to make authoritarian South Korea look like a bubble bath; a few years ago its diplomats were instructed to sell cigarettes on the black market to earn hard currency. The South, by contrast, has become a much advertised model of the success of the free-enterprise system. As a thank you, it gave kits of consumer goods to the North Koreans who had brought down rice and cement.

Gifts are nice and can alter the atmosphere but nothing serious can be done to improve relations without talks -- quiet talks -- conducted far from the circus that the Panmunjon forum has become. The record of the other three nations left divided by World War II -- China, Vietnam, Germany -- suggests the range of the difficulties that will inevitably burden any further common effort. As the rescuer of South Korea in 1950 and its guarantor to this day, the United States has a duty to do what it can to encourage the Koreans' steps to ease the ever-present danger of war on their pennisula and to come together, voluntarily, as one people again.