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As South Korea Won More Friends...

Business Week International Spotlight On Korea


The Free World's harrowing showdown with North Korea dates back to moves made by South Korea to assure itself a peaceful 1988 Olympics. For North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, already paranoid about his country's isolation, South Korea's diplomacy took a nightmare turn in 1988 that threatened to weaken Pyongyang's ties to its closest allies. South Korean President Roh Tae Woo, who was hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics, wanted a boycott-free Olympics in Seoul and was willing to do almost anything to get it.

Haunted by the precedents of the 1980 and 1984 summer Olympics, which had been boycotted by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Roh wanted to ensure the participation of China and the then-Soviet Union, neither of which had diplomatic relations with Seoul.

Instead, President Roh declared on July 7, 1988, that South Korea would transcend political ideology and seek diplomatic relations with all countries, including the Soviet Union and China. Under Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost, Warsaw Pact countries such as Hungary and Poland were free to pursue their own foreign policy, so they set up diplomatic relations with South Korea. President Roh wrote a $3 billion check to Gorbachev, and by 1991, Moscow and Seoul set up diplomatic relations. Chinese recognition followed in 1992.

Although there is no way to prove that South Korea's aggressive wooing of the former communist countries triggered Kim Il-Sung's push for a nuclear weapons program, the timing strongly suggests that there was a connection.

While South Korea was relishing its diplomatic victory, North Korea was suffering from increasing isolation. Perhaps under the South Korean pressure, Moscow ended barter trade with North Korea in 1989, and suddenly Pyongyang was stuck with no oil and no spare parts for its Soviet-supplied industrial plants, military tanks, or vehicles. China kept pressure on North Korea to produce hard currency for its energy and food imports in the same year.

North Korea made some attempts to attract foreign capital and tourism but to no avail. There were increasing reports of shortages of food, energy, and industrial materials. Defectors to Seoul claimed that few were eating three meals a day and beef was available only once a year on the occasion of Kim Il-Sung's birthday. In contrast to the well-lit Pyongyang boulevards, life in the villages was said to be miserable. The Great Leader needed international assistance but wasn't willing to lose face by holding out his hat.

Since the mid-1950s, North Korea has pursued a nuclear energy program with the help of the Soviet Union. It duly signed the nonproliferation treaty and accepted the provisions of nuclear safeguards provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).



In 1991, the year Seoul won diplomatic recognition from Moscow, the world became aware of Kim Il Sung's atomic intentions when he refused to allow scheduled IAEA inspections. There were suspicions that Kim's technicians had removed spent fuel and processed it into plutonium. The nuclear threat from North Korea became so important to South Korea that it signed an agreement with Pyongyang providing for a nuclear weapon free peninsula.

Then the U.S. and South Korea declared that South Korea was free of nuclear weapons and urged Pyongyang to accept mutual inspections, which never took place. Kim Il Sung continued to play a cat-and-mouse game with both South Korea and the U.S., taking care never to reveal his true intentions.

One school of thought is that given North Korea's diplomatic isolation and economic hardship, nuclear power is the only card left on Kim Il Sung's table. To attract attention and extract the maximum in economic aid and diplomatic relations from Japan and the U.S., Pyonyang's nuclear position provides the aging dictator with considerable strength.

That posture also serves his domestic political goal: to prove that the American imperialists backed down and that Kim remains the greatest leader on earth. Without the nuclear card, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea simply would

have ignored North Korea until the regime

disintegrated.EDITED BY JOHN E. PLUENNEKE By Laxmi Nakarmi in Seoul

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