Although the South Korean Foreign Ministry has refused to confirm or deny reports that normalisation is imminent, an official said a statement would be issued today. South Korean state radio announced yesterday that Lee Sang Ock, the Foreign Minister, will travel to Peking tomorrow for a three-day visit. Mr Lee is expected to conclude the normalisation agreement, and possibly also set a date for a state visit to China by South Korea's President, Roh Tae Woo.
The most immediate loser will be Taiwan. South Korea is the only Asian country which still has diplomatic links with Taipei, but these links will be severed at Peking's insistence before relations are opened between South Korea and China. This will leave Taiwan with only one major diplomatic ally - South Africa, which has warming relations with Peking - and a handful of smaller African and Latin American countries.
But in the longer term the consequences will be felt more severely by North Korea. China is the last significant ally of the secretive Communist state, and although Peking will not cut relations with Pyongyang, its opening to North Korea's capitalist foe in the south will come as a blow to the country's ideal of Communist solidarity around the world. Moscow established relations with South Korea in 1990, and an enraged North Korea recalled its ambassador from the Russian capital as a temporary protest.
For years North Korea has relied on Chinese patronage to prop up its ailing centralised economy. But as the economic reform movement strengthened its grip in China, the Chinese government has shown more interest in trade with South Korea. China and South Korea set up trade offices in each other's capitals last year, and diplomats said then it was only a matter of time before full diplomatic ties were established.
China has been showing impatience with the fanatical regime of Kim Il Sung. Last year it was the Chinese who persuaded North Korea to join the United Nations at the same time as South Korea, despite strong resistance from Pyongyang against such an international acknowledgement of legitimacy for Seoul. The Chinese have also been increasingly reluctant to give North Korea food and energy assistance.
The principal motive for China in drawing closer to South Korea is economic. MPs in Taipei say South Korea has promised US dollars 2bn ( pounds 1.036bn) loans to China. For South Korea, the benefits will be in the increased diplomatic leverage it can apply to Pyongyang in talks to have North Korea come clean on its nuclear weapons capability and ultimately to reunify the Korean peninsula.