MIKHAIL GORBACHEV'S trip to Japan has created a hubbub. But the Soviet leader's scheduled stopover today on South Korea's Cheju Island shouldn't be overlooked. Mr. Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to visit Japan. He duplicates the first-ever feat in his visit to Korea for a meeting with new friend President Roh Tae Woo of South Korea. Conveniently forgotten is an embarrassing old friend, North Korea's stolid dictator Kim Il-Sung. He has had to celebrate his 79th birthday by himself in Pyongyang this week without another world leader willing to help him blow out the candles on his cake.
Gorbachev's meeting with Roh Tae Woo will help cement relations between the USSR and South Korea. The two first met in San Francisco during Gorbachev's US summit visit last June. In December, Roh made a historic trip of his own to Moscow to begin formalizing relations. South Korea is eager to build factories in Siberia in exchange for raw materials. Seoul is better positioned than Toyko in this area. Gorbachev's visit to Cheju tweaks the Land of the Rising Sun by showing he has other Pacific Rim players to deal with.
Of course, a lot has happened since Gorbachev and Roh met last year in sunny San Francisco. The Soviet sky is dark and getting darker. With striking miners, food shortages, hard-line demands, and Boris Yeltsin shadowing him, it's doubtless good for Gorbachev to get out of the office occasionally and bask in the fervent adulation the Japanese people have showered on him.
But whether the Soviet Union can build the kind of infrastructure (roads, power plants) needed in Siberia to attract investors isn't clear.
Soviet statements during Gorbachev's trip demanding North Korea open its nuclear facilities to inspection - or face a Soviet embargo - were welcome. Increasingly isolated and needy, North Korea shouldn't be driven further into a corner. But at some point, Pyongyang must be told that nuclear-weapons development won't be tolerated.