ANOTHER icicle from the cold war in Asia has melted away.
China, which now seeks economic rather than ideological friends, has moved to officially recognize one of its last former enemies, South Korea.
Diplomatic ties between the two nations will reset the balance of power in Northeast Asia, analysts forecast, and bolster South Korea's blueprint for reunifying a divided Korean peninsula.
The long-awaited decision by China, expected to be formally announced today in Beijing, will further isolate its wartime ally, North Korea, as well as its adversary, Taiwan.
Both the "pariah" nations of North Korea and Taiwan, however, have already braced themselves over the past year to absorb the shock of this anticipated move by the mainland.
Taiwan, which has been forced to break ties with South Korea, loses its last official link with an Asian country. In a retaliatory step, Taiwanese officials threatened to boost trade with North Korea.
North Korea, meanwhile, has already made a number of compromises with South Korea, such as acquiescing to dual membership in the United Nations, after Moscow recognized Seoul in 1990 and cut off aid to Pyongyang.
This decision by Beijing, whose close ties have been vital to North Korea's limping economy and the survival of its leader Kim Il Sung, could eventually reduce the level of Chinese military and economic aid to Pyongyang.
As China's old guard, which fought alongside North Korean leaders, has faded from the scene and as Beijing has renewed its focus on a market-driven economy, the communist solidarity of the past has lessened between the two nations. Last year, China switched its trade with the North from barter to cash-only.
"The comradeship between Kim Il Sung and the Chinese leadership is still very personal," says Gong Ro Myung, former South Korea ambassador to Moscow in a recent interview.
"They fought against Japan and later the United States side by side, and still call each other `blood allies,' " says Mr. Gong, who reportedly led the secret talks for recognition in mid-August.
Last April, for instance, China gave a "gift" of 400 tons of pork to the North Koreans to honor Mr. Kim on his 80th birthday. But also in April, Chinese President Yang Shangkun visited Pyongyang and reportedly told Kim of the decision to recognize Seoul. In July, the North sent no congratulatory message to China on the anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.
The end of the cold war and the Soviet Union has reduced the strategic importance of North Korea to China, said Masao Okonogi, a Korea expert and professor at Keio University in Tokyo.
A leading South Korean newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, reported yesterday that China has agreed to void its military alliance with the North. And Beijing also reportedly plans to state to South Korea that its participation in the 1950-53 Korean War was "unfortunate and regrettable."
Pyongyang may now need to soften its opposition to Western demands that it drop an alleged nuclear-weapons project in order for it to gain economic help and recognition from Japan or other nations, analysts say.
"China has been North Korea's only ally. Now it is finished," says Katsumi Sato, president of the Tokyo-based Gendai Korea Institute. "This decision is going to be big blow. North Korea will collapse within this year."
North Korea's only official reaction to China's moves was an editorial in the Labor Daily newspaper on Saturday calling for people to "keep to the independent road" and to "maintain dignity and honor."
Within the next few months, China may try to show that it wants to maintain equal friendship with both Koreas by inviting the leaders of both nations to visit Beijing, according to both Japanese and Korean press reports.
Earlier this month, a delegation from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party visited Pyongyang and, according to a North Korean report, stated that bilateral relations would grow stronger "no matter how complex the international situation might be."
Officials in Japan hailed China's decision, although some observers say that Beijing is "playing a Korea card," using both Koreas to counter a growing Japanese presence in Asia. China has decided that it must compete with Japan for influence in the still fluid, post-cold-war order of the region, Dr. Okonogi contends.
Japanese Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe said the new China-South Korea ties "will contribute to the stability of Northeast Asia," adding that he hopes for changes in North Korea.
South Korea, which has benefited from communism's slow demise in the world, has had a successful campaign since 1987 to normalize ties with allies of North Korea. Pyongyang's remaining ties are limited to such nations as Cuba, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and other nations largely isolated by the West or in need of Scud missiles from North Korea.
Recognition by China will give South Korea added confidence and prestige in dealing with the North and restrict Pyongyang from trying to draw the US into its many disputes with the South.
The timing of China's decision may have been influenced by the fact that the architect of South Korea's four-year diplomatic campaign, President Roh Tae Woo, leaves office in February.
But a ballooning trade between the two countries, hastened by a trade treaty completed last year, also may have compelled China to speed up normalization.
While China's trade with North Korea was estimated at $609 million in 1991, the trade with South Korea reached $5.8 billion last year, and could top $10 billion in 1992. China, which is only 120 miles west of South Korea across the Yellow Sea, now ranks the south as its sixth-largest investor.
Such a rapid rise in economic links has been largely driven by the hope of South Korean companies to take advantage of China's cheap labor, especially among the Korean minority in China's northern Jilin Province. China has quickly become South Korea's third-largest trading partner.
News reports out of Taiwan and Seoul stated that South Korea will give China about $2 billion in loans in a linkage with recognition.
Such a move, if true, would be similar to a $3 billion aid package given to the Soviet Union in 1990 in return for normalization. Moscow has since faltered on paying the loan.