Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev held a brief but historic meeting with South Korean President Roh Tae Woo here Monday, and Roh later predicted that it will lead to diplomatic relations and wider economic cooperation--and perhaps eventually to reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
"Now that German reunification is becoming a reality, Korea is the only nation on earth that still is divided by Cold War politics," Roh told a press conference after his hourlong talk with Gorbachev.
"As a result of today's meeting, the Cold War ice on the Korean Peninsula has now begun to crack. We expect that this will be the first major step toward a peaceful and unified Korea."
It was the first time since the division of the Korean Peninsula after World War II that the heads of state of the Soviet Union and South Korea had conferred. For most of the past four decades, the two countries have been bitter adversaries, with South Korea denouncing the Soviet Communist system and the Soviet Union often portraying South Korea as a puppet of the United States.
On Monday night after the meeting, the triumphant South Korean President lavished praise on Gorbachev, terming him "a statesman" and "a man of courage and forthrightness."
At the same time, Roh was careful to emphasize that his unprecedented talk with Gorbachev was not aimed at outflanking North Korea, whose Communist regime is a longtime ally of the Soviet Union.
"I made it clear that we do not want North Korea to be isolated," Roh said at the press conference. ". . . North Korea is no longer our rival or adversary. It should be our partner in the quest for prosperity."
Despite his evident jubilation, the South Korean leader was unable to say Monday night exactly when his government would establish formal diplomatic relations with Moscow. "There will be further steps that will require some time," he asserted.
Gorbachev also gave no timetable.
Speaking briefly to reporters before leaving the Soviet Consulate for the airport, Gorbachev said:
"Let the fruit grow ripe, and when it grows ripe, we'll eat it," he said.
Roh portrayed his overture to Moscow as merely one part of his general policy of nordpolitik --of upgrading relations with the major Communist nations of the world, including China and the Soviet Union to the north.
"We expect our relations with China to further develop as time goes by," he told the press conference.
The ultimate objective, he suggested, is to use these contacts with the Soviet Union and China, North Korea's longtime supporters, as a means of establishing contact with Pyongyang. "The road between Seoul and Pyonyang is now totally blocked," Roh said. "Accordingly, we have to choose an alternative route to the North Korean capital by way of Moscow and Beijing."
The session took place amid heavy security and frayed nerves late Monday afternoon in a suite at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel.
Gorbachev, whose schedule was running late, kept Roh waiting for more than an hour while he gave a speech to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and answered questions.
Immediately afterward, shortly after 5 p.m., Gorbachev and his top advisers boarded a Fairmont Towers elevator and waited on the 23rd floor to greet the South Korean president.
But before they did, the tense South Korean party engaged in a furious shoving match at the elevators, as South Korean officials trying to get aboard battled with U.S. Secret Service agents, and then South Korean reporters shoved against Korean and U.S. security officials guarding the elevators.
A wooden screen was knocked down, and Roh himself was briefly caught in an crowded elevator before a uniformed San Francisco police officer finally ended the melee by bursting into the middle and shouting, "This is San Francisco police! This is our city!"
As for Soviet relations, it was Soviet troops who helped establish North Korean Communist leader Kim Il Sung in power after World War II, and the Soviet Union was the principal arms supplier when Kim's forces fought South Korean and American troops during the Korean War.
More recently, during the last five years, the Soviet Union has supplied North Korea with advanced military equipment, such as MIG-23 fighter planes, surface-to-air missiles and helicopter gunships.
But Gorbachev decided the Soviet Union should risk arousing the ire of its old North Korean ally in order to forge new ties with Seoul, which could provide Soviet Siberia with much-needed trade, technology and investment capital.
Last week, the North Korean Foreign Ministry warned that there would be "serious political consequences" for the Soviet Union if Gorbachev were to meet with Roh. It did not say what those consequences might be.
For most of the last four decades, North Korea has had close ties with both the Soviet Union and China and has carefully played off these two neighboring superpowers against each other.
Although U.S. officials helped orchestrate the meeting between the two foreign leaders, they sought to stay in the background Monday. "We don't want to rain on their parade," explained one U.S. official.
However, the Bush Administration dispatched Assistant Secretary of State Richard H. Solomon from Washington to brief Roh, before his meeting with Gorbachev, on the results of the Soviet leader's discussions with President Bush last week. Roh is scheduled to fly to Washington today and to meet with Bush on Wednesday.
On Monday, before seeing Gorbachev, Roh talked with former President Reagan, whose administration reached a nadir in its relation with the Soviet Union in September, 1983, after the Soviet shot down a South Korean passenger plane.
Reagan said afterward that the Roh-Gorbachev talks "will be an important step toward bringing peace to northeast Asia and on the Korean Peninsula, thereby ending the Cold War in that part of the world."
In recent days, U.S. officials have made no attempt to conceal their own delight at the Soviet rapprochement with Seoul, which they consider a serious setback for Kim Il Sung and his entrenched, militarized regime.
"The real payoff, from our point of view, is that if the relationship (between Moscow and Seoul) develops, the north gets isolated,' said one senior Administration official. "Then, there will be real pressure on the north to engage (with the West)."
Some U.S. officials were slightly fearful that Gorbachev's unprecedented move in seeing the South Korean leader could provoke North Korea to retaliate in some way.
"This is a major statement by Gorbachev on which Korea he wants to hang out with," said one State Department official. " . . . It's a little scary. Who the hell knows what the North Koreans are going to do? If somebody downs a Soviet airliner, you can guess who did it. . . . "
One senior Administration official said U.S. officials do not believe that the Soviet Union is ready to go so far as to cut off its military aid to the north.
U.S. officials have been particularly eager to persuade North Korea to permit international inspectors into its nuclear reactors, particularly since there have been signs from satellite photographs that North Korea may be embarking on a nuclear weapons program by building a fuel-reprocessing plant at one of these facilities.