THIRTY-SEVEN years after the end of the Korean War, and only seven years after a South Korean civilian airliner was shot down by Soviet fighters, South Korean President Roh Tae Woo made a historic first visit to the Soviet Union. At the meeting on Friday between Mr. Roh and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, ``we promised each other that everything that happened in the past would be a thing of the past,'' the Korean leader told reporters on Saturday.
This trip marks the culmination of an unusually speedy blossoming of relations between the Soviet Union and South Korea. Although trade between the two countries has been growing since 1986, until this year the Soviet Union had only maintained official ties with communist North Korea, its ally and postwar creation. But even that barrier was broken at a surprise meeting between Roh and Mr. Gorbachev in June in San Francisco, followed by the establishment of diplomatic relations several months ago.
The North Korean regime, a proud throwback to an earlier era of Communist authoritarianism, angrily denounced the Soviet moves. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze traveled to Pyongyang in early September to inform the Northern leadership of Soviet plans to establish relations with the South. The angry meeting that ensued was the toughest of his diplomatic career, he told an Asian diplomat shortly afterward.
The warming of ties with the capitalist South has faced some opposition at home as well. According to a well-informed Soviet Asian expert, the Soviet Foreign Ministry was strongly opposed to the San Francisco meeting, which was arranged without their knowledge. Some Soviet specialists felt that Moscow was giving Seoul a large gift - recognition and further isolation of the North - without getting much in return.
But for Gorbachev the payoff is clearly economic, in the form of trade and investment from South Korea, one of the emergent industrial powers of East Asia. Bilateral trade has gone from about $100 million four years ago to $600 billion last year, with estimates of $1 billion for 1991.
Gorbachev also wants urgent supplies to fill empty shelves and calm angry consumers. In meetings between top government officials held on Friday, the Soviets presented a list of about 40 items, mostly consumer goods. Although joint ventures to set up factories were on the agenda, ``quick relief has the priority,'' says Lee Hong-Koo, a senior advisor to Roh. A Soviet delegation will visit Seoul on Jan. 20 to finalize a deal that could amount to dispatch of $3 billion in Korean goods, financed in part by Korean credits, he told the Monitor.
The South Koreans also offer something else Gorbachev needs - personal backing. ``Mr. Gorbachev has been very cooperative,'' says Mr. Lee. ``For the future of North-South Korea relations and the maintenance of peace, the continued presence of Mr. Gorbachev at the top of the Soviet government is desirable.'' A meeting with Gorbachev rival Boris Yeltsin did occur on Saturday morning - at Mr. Yeltsin's request, Koreans officials were eager to point out.
Seoul clearly feels that the Moscow link is already forcing the North to alter its policies, as evidenced by the third round of a shaky but continuing high-level dialogue, which took place in Seoul as Roh departed for Moscow. Says Korean official Lee: ``The North Koreans are not too happy [about Seoul-Moscow ties], but they can live with it, because there is no other way.''