Moscow-Seoul Axis

Faced with economic crisis, Moscow has turned to the Pacific Rim for assistance, and South Korea has proven an enthusiastic partner

By , Roy T. Kim teaches political science at Drexel University, Philadelphia

`WE will let the fruit grow ripe and when the fruit grows ripe, we will eat it.'' Mikhail Gorbachev, June 5, 1990, San Francisco. ``We have sowed seeds of freedom, prosperity, and cooperation.'' Roh Tae-Woo, Dec. 15, 1990, Moscow.

During an historic summit in Moscow with South Korean President Roh Tae-Woo, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev obtained $3 billion in economic assistance. And Roh, the first South Korean head of state to make an official Soviet visit, received a Soviet pledge of peace and security in the Korean Peninsula. The Moscow summit symbolizes an unusually speedy, if not hasty, blossoming relationship between Moscow and Seoul. Relations were first normalized at the United Nations this September after 86 years of animosity. But along with improvements, the Moscow summit retained a cold war fa,cade.

Despite what South Korean officials say, the Soviet Union has failed to explain its involvement in the Korean War and Moscow's downing of KAL Flight 007 in 1983. Moscow remains silent about Khrushchev's comments that the war, while started by the North Korean leadership, was enthusiastically supported by ``everybody'' in the Soviet Union. And seven years after the tragic KAL incident, not a word has been said by the Soviet Union about the 269 innocent passengers.

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Soviet policy under Gorbachev in Northeast Asia has indeed opened a new chapter. Gorbachev's initiatives have altered the power relationship between Beijing, Moscow, and Washington. Roh has welcomed Gorbachev's initiatives and has embraced the new era of improved relations with Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang. Yet, Moscow and Beijing have proven more receptive than Pyongyang. Roh's ``partnership'' with Pyongyang is not likely to begin so long as Seoul still considers Pyongyang an ``anti-state.'' And as Seoul and Moscow get closer to each other, both seem to distance themselves from Pyongyang.

What do Moscow and Seoul have in common? In a sense, Gorbachev and Roh seem to be in the same bed but with different dreams. The 1988 Seoul Olympics and related Soviet cultural activities in South Korea proved to be major catalysts for emerging Moscow-Seoul relations. Soviet athletes and artists were honored guests during the games. And Moscow responded. More than 6,000 Soviets attended, the largest Soviet presence in South Korea since 1945, when the Red Army, along with American forces, liberated Korea from 35 years of Japanese domination. When the Soviet Olympic team headed home after successful competition, it took an impressive amount of gifts from the Korean business community.

Clearly Gorbachev cannot afford to miss the fast-moving Pacific economic train. He wants to enlist Seoul's assistance through direct investment, joint ventures, and trade. And since Moscow's relations with Tokyo have stalled over a territorial dispute, Gorbachev has increasingly looked to other Asian trade partners. Nearby South Korea seems ideal. Expanding South Korean businesses need the abundant natural resources available in Siberia. They also want to diversify their international market to keep pace with their expanding production and to hedge against increasing US trade protectionism.

Gorbachev's decision to reduce tensions has given Moscow badly needed economic assistance, and it enables him to reduce costly economic and military obligations to Pyongyang. And as tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul decrease, Moscow will likely gain the upper hand in the Korean Peninsula vis-'a-vis Beijing, Tokyo, and Washington. Seoul also gains advantages. President Roh's northern diplomacy, actively encouraged by Washington initially, has improved Seoul's relations with Moscow, Eastern Europe, Beijing, and Pyongyang. Pressured by increasing domestic demand for better ties with North Korea, Seoul is making its most serious effort yet at reconciliation.

Given the parallel interests of Moscow and Seoul, their future relationship holds much promise. But Moscow, with its melting-down economy and disintegrating politics, no longer retains much leverage over Pyongyang.

In fact, Gorbachev appears to have been much more successful in modifying Seoul's posture than Pyongyang's. The North Korean leadership feel betrayed by the Soviet Union. Seoul's solicitation for Soviet assistance to improve relations with Pyongyang is understandably resented by North Korean leadership. In response, Pyongyang has attempted to improve relations with Japan. This, in turn, is not appreciated by Seoul. Protracted competition between the two Koreas (for legitimacy, economic development, and recognition) will likely continue. Indeed, Roh's reported preparation for a trip to Pyongyang may prove to be premature.

Yet, North-South Korean reconciliation, when it happens, will augur a gradual but basic change in Seoul's relations with Moscow and, more important, with Washington. The US will have less influence, especially if the US continues to maintain the status quo in American-Korean economic and political relations. Today, South Korea's pride and independence has increased greatly. But as Seoul grows in economic strength, the existing military command structure still reflects Korean War conditions, 1950-53.

Gorbachev's olive branch extended to Washington's close allies in the Pacific, Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo, is perhaps the most serious Soviet challenge toward American hegemony in the Pacific. In short, the Gorbachev-Roh Moscow summit will have a profound impact on the entire geopolitical landscape of East Asia. In this regard, the Moscow summit may prove to be no less significant than what has been happening in Europe.

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