An old Asia hand offers a briefing that's more notable for the breadth than for the depth with which it addresses the issues still dividing North from South Korea. Oberdorfer (The Turn, 1991, etc.) starts his narrative in 1972, the first time that Pyongyang representatives had openly visited Seoul since the peninsular country was partitioned in the wake of WW II, and then reviews the ongoing negotiations on reunification. The author (a former Far East correspondent for the Washington Post) goes on to detail the South's blood-sport approach to politics at a time when the continued presence of Kim Il Sung lent the North a measure of stability. By way of example, the KCIA gunned down Park Chung Hee, opening the way for Chun Do Hwan. Following deadly riots in 1987, another would-be strongman, Roh Tae Woo, bested reformers Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam for the presidency, leaving him to oversee the 1988 Olympiad successfully staged in Seoul. In the meantime, Beijing gave Seoul a jolt, following Moscow's lead and establishing diplomatic relations with South Korea. Shortly before the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's founding father died in mid-1994, the wider world and Washington became gravely concerned about the Red state's nuclear capabilities. Jimmy Carter helped avert a full-blown crisis, however, and Kim's son (Kim Jong Il), who inherited an economy on the rocks, is coping as best he can with famine and a host of other daunting internal problems. Yet the impoverished North continues its efforts to subvert the flourishing South. Even so, Oberdorfer is reluctant to predict whether, let alone when, the two Koreas will be reunited. Indeed, he exits on the breezy note that there's no telling what may happen in a country so full of surprises. A fine overview of Korea's recent past, which will leave most readers frustrated by its lack of analysis on what might lie ahead for this divided nation. (b&w photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.