Desires to help North Korea must be tempered with wisdom.

Still, the overtures being made by South Korea's new leader, Kim Dae-Jung, to both North Korea and the United States, are welcome. They give reason for optimism that the impasse that has existed between the two Koreas for decades might be cracking.This week Kim visited Washington and appealed to both President Clinton and Congress to ease sanctions on North Korea in order "to induce them to open up." That, he said, would not only "be beneficial to the interests of our two countries, but to the peace of the peninsula and Northeast Asia in gen-er-al."

Clinton is correct in being wary. As he told Kim, North Korea needs to show some good faith by responding to Kim's conciliatory gestures to "get this show on the road."

Kim is perceptive and compassionate, qualities that will serve him well as he deals on the international stage. He wants a less harsh approach taken to North Korea to persuade it to open up, much as China and Vietnam have. The alternatives are either military provocation or a country in chaos on the verge of collapse, neither of which is in the best interests of South Korea nor the United States.

"We must extend to North Korea both good will and sincerity, so suspicion dissolves and openness emerges," he told Congress.

He is a good friend of the United States, noting that, "America saved my life more than once." The United States needs to back the 73-year-old Kim in his efforts to strengthen South Korea's economy and democracy and in his quest to vastly improve relations with North Korea.

Kim's election is a study in perseverance. As an opposition politician, Kim spent 15 years in prison or exile. He received a death sentence in 1980 by then military ruler Chun Doohwan. Pressure from Washington caused the death sentence to be commuted.

Instead of seeking retribution when he got in power, however, he called for reconciliation, freeing and pardoning two former military leaders who tried to kill him 17 years ago.

North Korea has an excellent opportunity to not only improve relations with South Korea but to bolster its own country because of a leader like Kim.

To do that it needs to realize the days of hard-line communism are over. Countries that continue to act as though nothing has changed in the world since 1953 - the year the armistice halted fighting on the Korean peninsula - will only hurt themselves.

Unfortunately, until North Korea recognizes that fact, there's not much either South Korea or the United States can do or should do, Kim's compassion notwith-stand-ing.