The South Korean press, which usually reflects the government's hopes and fears, is in a fit of rage because it thinks the United States is playing a sinister round of Ping-Pong diplomacy with North Korea.
A report that a U.S. table tennis team will play in an international tournament at Pyongyang next year touched off a brush fire of critical commentary yesterday, along with an official government request for a U.S. explanation.
In Washington, officials said there has been no change in United States policy toward North Korea, despite indirect entreaties from Pyongyang over many months aimed at the establishment of U.S.-North Korean contacts. The U.S. position continues to be that talks with North Korea can be held only if South Korea is a full participant.
At this particularly sensitive time in Washington-Seoul relations in view of the planned withdrawal of U.S. ground troops and diplomatic difficulties arising from allegations that U.S. legislators were bribed by South Korean agents, officials see no prospect of change in U.S. policy toward Pyongyang.
"Shocking," "deplorable," and "unjust" were some of the adjectives wheeled out to describe what appeared to the South Koreans to be another example of Western Deviousness. If true, declared the english-language Korea Times, the report is evidence that North Korea and the United States have been plotting a "sports honeymoon" without informing South Korea.
On Wednesday South Korean Foreign Minister Park Tong Jin objected in an interview to a proposed three-party conference among the United States and the two Koreas suggested by President Tito of Yugoslavia during his recent visit to Washington. A State Department spokeman yesterday restated the U.S. position that no talks would be held with North Korea unless the South Koreans are present.
South Korea is always jittery at any report that the United States might be planning to deal with the Communist North. The latest reports are particularly unsettling because it was an exchange of table tennis teams in 1971 that began the thaw in relations between the United States and China.
The South Korean press, in its anguish over the parallel with China's ping-pong diplomacy, glossed over the fact that the U.S. team's visit in 1971 was officially sponsored by the American government.
The story broke here in a report by Japan's Yomiuri newspaper that an American team will participate in the 35th world table tennis championships to be played in Pyongyang next April.
It quoted George Kennedy of the U.S. branch of the International Table Tennis Association as saying the team would go at the request of the North Korean association. Perhaps, Kennedy added, the team will be able to meet with Kim II Sung, the North Korean leader, just as the earlier U.S. team had met with China's Chou En-lai. He also said he may invite North Korean teams to play in the United States.
Even before the story hit the streets of Seoul, the Foreign Ministry had called in the U.S. Embassy's political counselor, William Clark, and asked for an explanation.
After getting instructions from Washington, the embassy replied that the visit, if it occurs, would be made by a private sports group without government sponsorship. It also pointed out that since March 18, 1977, when passport restrictions agaisnt travel to several countries were lifted, Americans have been free to travel to North Korea invited.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry yesterday was referring requests for comment to the national table tennis association.
The organizations's managing director, Chou Young Sok, issued a puzzling statement which noted only that South Korea had not been invoted to the Tournament in Pyongyang. He said he would notify the international federation of that fact.
In another mystifying footnote, South Korean newspapers quoted government sources as expressing concern about the Ping-Pong match for a reason unrelated to high-level diplomacy.
The sources, it was said, though it undersirable for the United States to play table tennis in North Korea when both the Soviet Union and China have spurned South Korea's invitation to participate in the 42nd world shooting championships to be held here in September.