PACIFIC PERSPECTIVE : Heavy Portents in Korean Gambit : Gorbachev’s visit to Roh Tae Woo, not limited results in Tokyo, offers the best clues to his Asian strategy.

<i> William E. Odom, director of the National Security Agency from 1985 to 1988, is director of national security studies at the Hudson Institute, Alexandria, Va. </i>

The implications of improved Soviet relations with South Korea, not Japan, are the big story from Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent visit to the region. If South Korea succeeds in undermining Soviet support for North Korea, outcomes that could resonate throughout Asia are possible.

Gorbachev’s failure to advance Soviet-Japanese relations dramatically during his unprecedented visit to Tokyo is not surprising, though some voices have tried to make it into a sign of Gorbachev’s decline. But his stop in South Korea to meet with President Roh Tae Woo is a better clue to the potentially destabilizing impact of the new strategy Gorbachev has envisioned for the Asia-Pacific region.

The outlines of the new Soviet strategy appeared in Gorbachev’s speeches in Vladivostok in July, 1986. They included normalization with China; creating a Helsinki-like, multilateral forum in the Asia-Pacific region where new security arrangements could be worked out, and vastly increased Soviet economic involvement in the region.

Gorbachev succeeded easily in the first goal, normalization with China, because he met all three longstanding Chinese demands--withdrawal from Afghanistan, Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia and reduction of Soviet troops on the Sino-Soviet border. The impact on the Washington-Moscow-Beijing triangle has been imperceptible.


The United States has been cool to the idea of an Asia-Pacific copy of the Helsinki agreements. Some of the “new thinking” Soviet foreign-policy specialists have cast doubt on the idea as well. Their argument is that the scheme could undermine the U.S.-Japanese security treaty and encourage complete U.S. military withdrawal from East Asia. That, these Soviet analysts argue, is not in anybody’s interest, not even the Soviet Union’s, because the U.S. military presence allows Japan not to rearm and reawaken old fears in the region. Nor is it in Japan’s interest, because the U.S.-Japanese security tie helps keep the doors open to Japan’s export economy throughout the Western industrial world.

What are the prospects for the economic component of Gorbachev’s strategy? Very poor unless the Soviet economy is put on a market basis, particular in the Far East. Centrally planned economies simply cannot integrate with free-market economies in the way the Gorbachev strategy demands. As some of his domestic critics assert, the Soviet command economy is a “Great Wall” against Soviet economic penetration of the Asia-Pacific region, a wall he refuses to tear down.

To be sure, Gorbachev’s refusal to return the four Kuril islands, the “Northern Territories,” to Japan remains a political obstacle, but were it removed, the economic “Great Wall” would remain. Meanwhile, the multilateral-security-formula portion of his grand design would be no more appealing to Japan and the United States.

Does this mean Gorbachev’s strategy is at a dead-end? Not at all. South Korea has leaped at the opportunity to improve relations because that rapprochement threatens North Korea’s long-term survival. The South Koreans are willing to pay. A $3-billion loan by Korean banks has been arranged and plans for larger sums have been discussed. What Gorbachev failed to get in Japan he may obtain in part in South Korea. Consider two scenarios:


First, a strong undertaking between Moscow and Seoul might lead to the reunification of Korea on South Korean terms. In time, the new Korea could become an economic giant, perhaps not on the scale of Japan but certainly large. Unlike Japan, it would also be a strong military power. Its old adversaries, Japan and China, could hardly be pleased. The United States would have to withdraw its forces from Korea because the ostensible rationale for their being stationed there--defense against the north--would have vanished.

This outcome would undermine the remarkable strategic equilibrium enjoyed by Northeast Asia for nearly 20 years. It would set in motion a series of changing alliances; if Korea acquired nuclear weapons, something North Korea is now struggling to achieve, how would Japan react?

The second scenario would be for North Korea to find new allies to support its continued viability as an independent state. The Japanese are already hedging for this scenario. Representatives of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party have visited Pyongyang in an attempt to begin an improvement of relations. China, of course, has a long record of supporting North Korea.

How would the United States react to this? We have long been committed to South Korea. Would we oppose reunification led by Seoul and tacitly or openly support the continued existence of North Korea? How would Japan’s support for North Korea affect U.S.-Japanese relations?


Other futures are possible, less troublesome ones, but these two variants reveal the disturbing implications of Gorbachev’s strategy. They are not minor perturbations for the regional balance of power, and managing them will involve clashes of political values, loyalties and strategic interests.

The upheaval in Europe the fall of 1989 has so fixed our gaze that we have overlooked the prospects for equally major changes in Northeast Asia. The real dangers of Gorbachev’s new strategy for that region are not foremost in Japan or China. They are on the Korean peninsula.