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Regional Outlook : S. Korea Makes Play for Unity to North's Allies : President Roh Tae Woo even staged a soccer match as part of his diplomatic plan. At stake as the strategy plays out is peace and stability in a potential regional powder keg.


SEOUL — A smiling Yoon Yong Wan, 29, adjusted his 20-month-old son's trousers while his wife packed away the baby's milk bottle as they prepared to leave Seoul's Olympic Stadium to the strains of the 1988 Games' theme song, "Hand In Hand."

"I was quite moved," said Yoon, a shopkeeper, who had taken the afternoon off to see the South Korean national soccer team beat North Korea's team, 1-0, before an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 80,000 fans.

"Although I was born after the war, this is certainly different from what I learned in textbooks at school," he said.

The textbooks, he explained, told of the 1950 North Korean invasion that triggered a bloody and vengeful three-year war. They "depicted North Koreans as if they were a totally different species of people."

"But look at that," he said, pointing to players from north and south marching around the stadium, arm-in-arm and wearing the soiled shirts they had exchanged. "Here, we are all one people," he said.

The soccer match that Yoon watched last Tuesday marked the first time that any North Korean sports team had visited the south in the 45 years since occupying American and Soviet armies divided a post-World War II Korea liberated from its Japanese colonial masters.

At that, it was a small triumph of South Korean President Roh Tae Woo's so-called nordpolitik (northern diplomacy)--the strategy aimed at establishing ties with North Korea's former Communist allies. Through them, Roh hopes to persuade, or force, the Stalinist society to the north to ease tensions, promote mutual trust and eventually achieve reunification.

Ironically, however, nordpolitik has been more successful with its intermediate targets than with the ultimate goal. As a result, South Korea has been transformed from a nation totally isolated from the Communist Bloc to one with meaningful contacts with nearly all Communist nations, even as a breakthrough in its relations with North Korea remains out of reach.

At stake as the strategy plays out is peace and stability in what remains a potential regional powder keg--one in which the United States, because of the 43,000 American troops still based on the peninsula, has a particularly vital interest.

In 1972, north and south agreed to open talks toward reunification. But after 18 years of off-and-on contacts, two rounds of unprecedented prime ministerial meetings in September and October only underscored that both sides are still talking about principles by which to deal with each other, and not concrete actions to push the process forward.

No mail, no visitors, no trade, no telephone calls, no radio or television broadcasts cross the border. Nor is the north likely to accept Seoul's proposals to inaugurate significant exchanges, many experts agree.

North Korea, which has brainwashed its people to believe that they live in paradise and the south lives in poverty as puppets of the Americans, "can't let contacts with the south threaten its own regime," said Park Kwon Sang, editor of the magazine Sisa Journal and a longtime student of north-south relations.

Roh, however, argues that the waves of international change will ultimately force North Korea to change and open its doors. Unification will come within a decade, he predicts.

A highly placed Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, agreed that north-south contacts "have yet to move from symbolism to substance." But he remains optimistic. "An independent dynamic is beginning to operate between North and South Korea" that will eventually lead to an "erosion" of the north's regimented society, the diplomat predicted.

Meanwhile, nordpolitik is rewriting the geopolitical map of Northeast Asia.

On Sept. 30, the Soviet Union--North Korea's major purveyor of weaponry--established full diplomatic ties with Seoul. China, the north's other major military ally, agreed 10 days ago on an exchange of trade offices with the south. The new offices, in Beijing and Seoul, will also be able to issue visas.

"(They) will serve as embassies in all but name," the diplomat said.

Already, South Korea's annual trade with China has exceeded $3 billion, and it is approaching $900 million with the Soviet Union. Four economic agreements have been signed with Moscow and a regular civilian air route established between Moscow and Seoul. Similar agreements are now expected with Beijing, and both the Soviet Union and China look forward to expanding trade and welcoming South Korean investments.

South Korean business firms are employing Chinese in Guam, Saipan and in the Middle East, and the huge Hyundai conglomerate is to hire 1,000 more for a Siberian forestry project.

Seoul businessmen have become so eager to strike deals with Communist countries that the government felt compelled to intervene to control "disorderly competition," said Lee Ki Joo, an assistant vice foreign minister.

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