WASHINGTON — We sometimes forget that the Greatest Generation, which includes my father and mother, not only endured the agony of World War II but also the Korean War.

The mud, mayhem and misery of the 1950-1953 Korean episode, sometimes dubbed the Forgotten War (but not by those who were there), was given the Hollywood treatment in "M*A*S*H," but the impact of the inconclusive war is with us still.

It's somewhat astonishing that 37,000 U.S. soldiers are still stationed there, battling muck, endless rains — and the alternating tension and boredom of maintaining the peace far from home.

Visitors to the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea still have to leave off the accoutrements of Western civilization, such as athletic shoes and flashy jewelry and logo T-shirts, to avoid "offending" the North Korean soldiers.

I remember the scowling faces of those soldiers as we carefully walked where directed, fearful of land mines and nervous trigger fingers. I remember the vibrant color of the marigolds planted by American soldiers and the barbed wire and preachy recordings on the North Korean side.

That's why the sight of the South Korean leader grasping the hand of his North Korean counterpart is so riveting. The exuberant smiles on two men whose countries haven't been officially at peace for five decades and who have never met before are stunning.

North Korea is barely in the industrial age, let alone the information age. Its people are starving. It is isolated. President Clinton's plan to spend billions of dollars on a still-untested nuclear missile defense system is being pushed partly because of North Korea's eagerness to get nuclear weapons.

Much of South Korea is firmly in today's world. Downtown Seoul has ready availability of every technological advance — and knockoffs of all imaginable luxury goods. We import TVs and VCRs and countless other products from South Korea.

When the United States follows through on talk of dropping economic sanctions against North Korea, that country will be transformed. Eventually, North and South will be reunited, much as North and South Vietnam are one country.

Excitement over the prospect of millions of separated Korean families being reunited must be huge. If the somewhat vague agreement worked out in Pyongyang a few days ago holds, there could be emotional reunions as early as mid-August.

There will be many false starts and tricky moments before there are meaningful breakthroughs. The fact that most North Koreans were kept from knowing most summit details shows that communism won't quickly disappear in North Korea.

When Clinton visited the 38th parallel in 1993 during a monsoon rain 30 miles from Seoul, he noted that he was closer to North Korea than any other U.S. president in history.

Later, at Camp Casey, he told 2,000 infantrymen that he hoped the day would come when North Korean soldiers could walk across the bridge freely to peace and freedom. But having described North Korea as the scariest place on earth, he also said he was far less hopeful of reunification than he once was.

Last fall, North Korea announced a moratorium on missile development, and that's when talk of easing sanctions began.

Will the two leaders be able to undertake the hard work of getting along?

Will the American men and women serving on the Korean peninsula come home?

It's like a soap opera. In one amazing champagne toast between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il, the world changed.

The Greatest Generation, to whom we owe so much, has good reason to be hopeful.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.