French minister's visit to South Korea -- the rift that never took place

With the French government's stated ambition to someday recognize North Korea , South Korean officials were on their guard for French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson's three-day visit to Seoul last week.

But the anticipated explosion was muted: France has made no firm decision to recognize North Korea in the near future. The trip instead appeared to be simply smoothing the way for French Trade Minister Michel Jobert's visit next month. Mr. Jobert is expected to discuss France's participation in the scheduled multi-billion dollar projects detailed in South Korea's new five-year plan.

Speculation that the French were on the verge of recognizing the communist half of the Korean pennisula was fueled by Mr. Cheysson's address to the French Assembly on July 6, where he said:

''We think one day we should establish normal relations with this country (North Korea). . . . We will see how to proceed under acceptable conditions for all. But this is definitely the direction.''

Although the two countries have private trade relations, North Korea is one of only two nations not recognized by France.

According to an open-door policy established by Seoul in 1973, the only acceptable conditions for recognition of the North by a friendly country such as France would be the recognition of the South by a communist-bloc country. The theory is that cross-recognition would reduce tension across the border by bringing the two countries closer together through mutual partners in trade and diplomacy.

The South Koreans find France's possible unilateral recognition of the communist half of the peninsula particularly alarming. There is concern that other socialist-leaning European countries such as Italy, Greece, and Spain would be encouraged by France's move and follow suit, thus tipping international favor toward the North Koreans.

''We would find the move by the French to be distinctly unfriendly,'' says a Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman.

For the French, recognition of North Korea could be distinctly costly. France already won contracts in the South valued at $2.6 billion for construction of two nuclear plants. The sagging French economy could be further bolstered by other lucrative projects on the horizon in South Korean.

In the immediate future there is the prospect of winning a $370 million contract to supply equipment for a liquefied natural gas terminal and a $1.5 billion contract for a rapid transit train. These projects are followed up in Korea's new five-year program with plans for additional nuclear plants, a satellite relay broadcast system for the 1988 Seoul summer Olympics, and a tidal energy plant.

The French minister's visit came during an extremely heated furor over alleged historical distortions regarding Korea in Japanese textbooks.

One Korean official present at the meetings between Cheysson and Korean Foreign Minister Lee Bum Suk said:

''My analysis of the meetings was that the French were a little surprised at the hot tempers of the Korean people. They seemed to step back two steps from their intention to recognize the North.''

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