MORE than 6,000 Soviet citizens will attend the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the largest Soviet presence in South Korea since 1945, when the Red Army, along with United States forces, liberated Korea from 35 years of Japanese colonialism. This time the Soviets are coming to Seoul with their best-trained athletes. But the Seoul Olympics have become much more than an athletics showcase. They have become a catalyst in thawing Soviet-Korean relations, and could eventually profoundly alter the Pacific Rim's geopolitical landscape.
Preparations for the Games began the improvement in Soviet-Korean relations. Diplomatic ties have been virtually nonexistent since relations between imperial Russia and Yi Dynasty Korea were severed early in the 20th century.
Yet Seoul is now allowing port calls for five 10,000-ton-class Soviet tourist ships in Pusan and Inchon during the Olympic Games. Also for the first time, Seoul is permitting the Soviet airline, Aeroflot, to fly into Seoul. And Aeroflot and Korean Air have negotiated scheduled passenger service between Moscow and Seoul, which begins after the Olympics. A direct sea route is likely to open later this year between Pusan and the Soviet port city of Nakhodka. Also, cultural exchanges have been arranged.
Most significantly, a team of Soviet consular officers arrived in Seoul recently to prepare logistics for the Soviet visitors. While this quasi-diplomatic mission is serving a limited objective, it symbolizes the quickening improvement of relations between the two nations. South Korea and Hungary have also announced establishment of formal political relations, and these ties have taken a leap forward, helped in part by the participation of the socialist countries in the Games to the displeasure of their North Korean allies.
What do South Korea and the USSR intend to accomplish?
Confronted with a stagnant economy, particularly in Siberia, the USSR cannot afford to miss the fast-moving Pacific economic train. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev wants to invite foreign money and high technology to cure his seriously ill Soviet economy. South Korean capital and technology are readily available for this purpose. Mr. Gorbachev made his first overture in his Vladivostok speech of July 1986, when he pledged to open that heretofore closed Soviet port on the Pacific.
In March, Moscow established the Soviet National Committee for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Representing academic, business, and government organizations, the committee wants to be active in the Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference, where South Korea has been a standing member. Seoul has been cautiously positive in welcoming Moscow's establishment of its cooperation committee and its overtures to participate in the Pacific Conference.
Coinciding with the Seoul Olympics, the Soviet committee plans to be host to a major international conference in Vladivostok between Sept. 28 and Oct. 2. Among invited guests are former US President Gerald Ford, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, former Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua, South Korea's Nam Dok Woo, and other international figures. Opening up Vladivostok and establishing free economic zones in the Soviet Maritime Province (Primorsky) will definitely attract South Korean investment.
South Korean multinational companies are interested in such opportunities. They want to diversify their international markets to keep pace with their steadily expanding production and as a hedge against possible US trade barriers. The expanding South Korean economic machinery needs the abundant natural resources available in Siberia. They also know that their Soviet investment could be more profitable than their stake in China, given the Soviets' substantially larger per capita income.
Politically, both sides also have much to gain. Both want an end to the protracted confrontation between the two Koreas. The collapse of the recent Seoul-Pyongyang negotiations in Panmunjom, which might have brought North Korea to participate in the Olympics, are likely to be only a temporary setback. The tide for North-South Korean d'etente is strong.
On Moscow's part, it sees an opportunity to lessen its costly obligations to Pyongyang through improved relations with Seoul. If tensions along the demilitarized zone decrease, the USSR could try to gain the upper hand in the Korean Peninsula vis-`a-vis Peking, Tokyo, and Washington, because it already has the most leverage with Pyongyang.
Seoul also sees advantageous possibilities. President Roh Tae Woo's ``northern diplomacy,'' actively encouraged by Washington, tends to improve relations with Peking, Moscow, and Pyongyang. Pressured by persistent domestic calls for better ties with North Korea, Seoul is making its most serious effort yet to reduce tensions with its northern neighbor.
If this happens, it will augur a change in South Korea's relationship with the US, a change that will probably mean reduced US influence, especially if the US fails to recognize the risks of trying to maintain the status quo in American-Korean relations. South Korea's sense of pride and independence has grown. More than ever, it finds its dependence on US military support painful, even shameful. While the country has grown in economic strength, the existing military command structure still reflects Korean war conditions. Considering the rising tide of Korean nationalism, the current US dominance of South Korea's military command will likely be diminished.
If improved Soviet-South Korean relations continue after the Games, there will be profound implications for the Pacific Rim. The entire geopolitical equation among the US, USSR, Japan, and China will be fundamentally changed.
Roy U. Kim teaches political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He recently completed his latest book, ``Soviet Challenges in East Asia.''