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Reagan tries to lessen tension in East Asia

By Charlotte SaikowskiStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 1983


At the demilitarized zone, the South Korean officer, ramrod straight, was quietly pleased. ''To have President Reagan on the front line is a great honor for the Korean army,'' said Lt. Col. Kim Byong Kap. ''It will help build up espritm along this front. I feel like he's my senior family.''

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President Reagan's trip to the Republic of Korea, including visits with US and Korean troops at the demilitarized zone (DMZ), has greatly reassured South Koreans in the wake of recent national disasters. Tensions had gripped this country following the shooting down of the Korean airliner and the bombing in Rangoon, Burma, of 17 South Koreans, including high Cabinet officials. Mr. Reagan's strong reaffirmation of the US commitment to South Korea's defense seems to have eased the anxiety.

Applause broke out in the National Assembly when the President declared: ''You are not alone, people of Korea. America is your friend and we are with you.''

Beyond the security reassurances to South Korea, Mr. Reagan achieved a number of foreign policy objectives during his six-day journey to northeast Asia. With a view to enhancing regional and global stability, he:

* Delivered a strong statement of American friendship for Japan, thus helping to alleviate Japanese unease about growing anti-Japan sentiment in the US Congress and within American industry. Some members of the Diet (parliament) were visibly moved when the President declared that the ''Japanese-American friendship is forever.''

* Laid the ground for progress in talks to resolve bilateral trade, finance, and defense problems. Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was spared the pressure of doing something before the Japanese elections in mid-December in hopes he can be more forthcoming next year.

* Heralded a ''new Pacific era'' in which the countries of northeast Asia and the Pacific would play an increasingly important role in global affairs, he thereby seemed to signal Europe that US foreign policy henceforth would be less Eurocentric.

* Gave a measured but unmistakable nudge to the South Koreans to develop democratic political institutions as an essential element of security.

* Kept open the door to a relaxation of tension on the Korean peninsula through a dialogue between North and South. ''Even as we stand with you to resist aggression from the north,'' Mr. Reagan told the South Koreans, ''we will work with you to strengthen the peace on this peninsula.''

How to reduce the hostility and tensions between the two Koreas has long been a dilemma of US policy, and the presidential trip served to highlight it. For the moment the issue of resolving the Korean division is dormant. Far from trying to find a way out of the dilemma, Mr. Reagan has mounted a campaign of diplomatic pressure to isolate North Korea after the Rangoon bombing. Japan is expected to announce new trade restrictions against North Korea and, according to US officials, Pakistan and others may follow Burma's lead in breaking off diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

However, it is significant that before the bombing there were mounting signs of interest from many quarters in trying to defuse the East Asian ''powder keg.''