COULD the Soviet Union be playing with a gamble on the Korean peninsula as dramatic as Moscow's acquiescence to German reunification? This possibility must be considered in light of the growing warmth between the USSR and South Korea. In the latest move, Seoul has extended a three-year loan to Moscow of $3 billion. It came, significantly, on the very day that the Soviet crackdown in the Baltics jeopardized a similar European Community credit.
South Korean businessmen, with their government's encouragement, are crowding into Moscow hotels, to some extent replacing increasingly disillusioned Westerners. (Even the Germans, Moscow's biggest trading partners, are finding highly touted Soviet business opportunities less than alluring.)
A case can be made that South Korea, hungry for raw materials, is the ideal partner for a Soviet Union rich in raw materials but technologically backwards.
The new line of credit for the Soviets is as welcome in Seoul as in Moscow. South Korean planners have been vexed by a downturn in United States markets, growing inflation, and international pressure to relax import restrictions. The country's political leadership sees the flirtation with Moscow as strengthening its diplomatic clout.
But Moscow may have more in mind than just finding a new source of credit. The Soviets publicly all but turned their back on their hard-line North Korean ally by setting up protocol relations with Seoul after welcoming the South Korean president to Moscow last December. (Seoul believes it has a promise of a reciprocal visit by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.)
All this falls hard on the North Korean regime. Its economy, a shambles, has lost international credit. There is no sign of abatement in the scramble to succeed aging dictator Kim Il Sung - North Korea's only ruler since Moscow created it after World War II. The quintessential Stalinist regime is experiencing significant dissidence - strikes, military indiscipline, and restiveness.
NORTH Korea's diplomatic isolation was magnified by the recent opening of Seoul's Peking ``trade mission'' under a prominent South Korea diplomat. Conventional wisdom holds that neither Moscow nor Beijing has had much influence over internal North Korean affairs since the Korean War. Still, the leverage that Pyongyang once had by playing Moscow against Beijing has faded. It may disappear altogether as China's own succession crisis deepens in anticipation of the departure of aging maximum leader Deng Xiaopi ng.
The other northeast Asian player, Japan, is desperately trying to open a window in Pyongyang against still hard resistance in North Korea. Tokyo, too, is pushing hard for formal relations with Pyongyang in time for the coming Korean peninsula showdown.
That may be why Shin Kanomaru, a Japanese Liberal Democrat Party leader visiting Pyongyang last fall, apologized not only for Imperial Japan's oppression in its pre-World War II occupation but for the postwar support of South Korea too - which the Japanese foreign ministry refuses to do.
In Moscow the North Korean alliance has to be seen as a depreciating asset. If the Soviets could play a significant role in fostering Korean reunification under Seoul's paramountcy, it could lead to a broad political modus vivendi between Moscow and a new unified Korea. With Korea's antagonism toward both China and Japan, that would give Moscow a new vantage point on East Asia geopolitics.
Just as in Central Europe, where Moscow has been able to swap support for German reunification for massive aid and a weakening of Bonn's NATO role, the Soviets could hope to see a unified Korea loosen its ties to Washington. Pyongyang's campaign for nuclear disarmament on the Korean peninsula, even as it desperately grasps for nuclear capability, could be Moscow's price.
Congressman Steven Solarz, chairman of the House Foreign Relations subcommittee on Asia, endorses the idea of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. But such an eventuality could force the US to withdraw its forces, there for almost half a century.
In a world of tightening military budgets, it is arguable that only with a nuclear shield can a diminished ``trip-wire'' US military presence in Korea safely be maintained - thus preserving the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul entente that has been so significant for the US-Japanese alliance.