Seoul — ``Has the American team arrived yet?'' a Korean man asked only a few days before the Olympic Games began. The team had in fact landed, but his uncertainly was understandable. As far as the South Korean media is concerned, the Americans have been a sideshow. Attention has been focused instead on Korea's newest favorites - the communist nations.
The presence of delegations from the Soviet Union, China, and other socialist countries is providing South Koreans with a novel, and clearly welcome, glimpse into a previously forbidden world. Leading Korean dailies have lavished coverage on everything from the performances of the Bolshoi Ballet in an Olympic cultural festival to profiles of Soviet athletes.
The Olympic Games have been a catalyst for a boom in South Korea's once non-existent relations with the communist world. Since the Korean war, which ended with a fragile armistice between communist-backed North Korea and Western-backed South Korea, communism has been the South's enemy. Now, Seoul seeks the opening of economic and political ties with the communist nations.
The most dramatic fruit of this process came four days before the Games opened, when Hungary and South Korea announced the establishment of permanent missions in each other's capitals. It is the first formal link between South Korea and an East-bloc nation since before the war.
South Korean officials say they hope the Hungarian example will soon be followed by other communist nations. Trade offices have already been set up in many communist countries, and trade volume is expected to expand rapidly. South Korea's trade with China, mostly conducted indirectly through places like Hong Kong, is expected to reach a total of $3 billion this year.
The most obvious benefit for South Korea is to deepen the isolation of North Korea from its own communist allies. Only Cuba and six other nations have followed North Korea's boycott of the Games. ``To all appearances,'' the English-language daily Korea Times wrote in an editorial, ``North Korea has already been reduced to Asia's most isolated anomaly.''
The North denounced Hungary's decision as ``a cowardly and shameless act.'' ``By betraying her old socialist friend and joining hands with an imperialist lackey, Hungary has now discarded even the elementary stand and the moral obligation of Communists,'' said a commentary in a North Korean paper.
Despite these gains, some South Koreans worry that the communist boom is being overplayed. Expectations are being created, some say, that cannot be met. And the fervor for relations, they worry, also reflects anti-Americanism.
National Assemblyman Cho Se Hyong, who directs international relations for the leading opposition party, calls this a ``pendular syndrome.'' ``We had always been close to the West. Now new guys have shown up and everybody rushed to gather around them.'' The swing toward the East bloc, he worries, reflects ``anti-American sentiment.'' Assemblyman Cho predicts the pendulum of emotion will swing back eventually. ``After that, cold reality will return. The Soviet Union - what can they do for us?'' he asks.
In some South Korean official circles, a Western diplomat says, there is a tendency to see relations with Moscow and Washington as a ``zero-sum game.'' ``For every inch the Soviets get,'' the diplomat says, ``the United States has to back up an inch.'' Korean officials have even been heard threatening to improve relations with the Soviets unless the US relents on trade pressures, the diplomat says.
There is little evidence, however, that either Moscow or Peking, the two main allies of the North, will follow Hungary's example. Both countries have been careful to confine their activities to low-level trade contacts and cultural exchanges. ``The Soviets and Chinese can get the economic ties without having diplomatic recognition,'' says the Western diplomat.
The Chinese and the Soviets have a history of competition for influence with the independent North. Neither is likely to endanger its ties with Pyongyang.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in a speech on Asian relations last week, referred to possibilities of forming economic ties with South Korea. But he carefully couched that in the context of improved relations between North and South Korea.
Western diplomats here see the Hungarian move as a step in the direction of ``cross-recognition,'' a US-favored formula. Under that concept, the US and Western allies would recognize the North Korean government in exchange for Soviet and Chinese recognition of the South.
In a press conference in Seoul, Soviet Minister of Sports Marat Gramov was asked about the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with the South. He replied that it was simply a matter of ``history'' that ``the Soviet Union and the socialist countries recognized the People's Democratic Republic of Korea [the North], and the United States and [others] recognize South Korea.'' Mr. Gramov, the highest-level Soviet official to visit the South, then raised the concept of ``cross recognition.'' But he stated clearly that Moscow could not go forward with this unless there is agreement from ``both sides of Korea.''
The cautious approach is likely to dominate. Moscow and Peking will probably continue to play a quiet role in pressing the North to continue talks on improving relations with the South. But hopes in Seoul of a dramatic breakthrough in relations are probably premature.