TOKYO -- When Japan announced plans this month to stop requiring the fingerprinting of the vast majority of law-abiding foreign residents, mainly Koreans, it was not out of any new-found sensitivity to either the resisters or the human rights criticisms.
Rather, the reason one of Japan's most-hated anti-foreigner laws will be rewritten, and possibly abolished, is that Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu needed some goodwill offering to take to President Roh Tae Woo on his first visit to Seoul.
He announced that within two years, Japan would eliminate the fingerprinting requirement for Koreans. Japanese newspapers have said the requirement would soon be ended for other foreigners, too.
"I think the Japanese felt a need to do something reassuring for us at a time when both they and we are getting closer to the North Koreans," a South Korean diplomat said.
Scrambling to keep up with events on the Korean Peninsula, Japan's governing Liberal Democratic party began last year to try a few non-official contacts with North Korea's Stalinist government.
But at the same time, Tokyo remains eager to sustain momentum in relations with South Korea, a rapidly growing trade partner that is also beginning to have influence in East Asian diplomacy.
It has not been an easy balancing act.
When Shin Kanemaru, a leading LDP power broker, went to Pyongyang last year and had an unprecedented meeting with North Korea's President Kim Il Sung, Seoul quickly warned Japan against doing anything that would upset the intricately ritualized steps being danced by the two halves of Korea.
Mr. Kanemaru hastily scheduled a trip to South Korea, to say publicly that old Korean friends would not be forgotten in the rush to make new ones.
The triangular maneuvering between Japan and the two Koreas is part of broader changes in Korean politics and diplomacy, which in turn repeatedly have interacted with the changes Mikhail Gorbachev wrought in Soviet domestic and foreign policy.
South Korea has been making steady progress in relations with Moscow ever since the 1988 Olympics, when the two countries agreed to open trade offices.
South Korea also has steadily broadened its non-official contacts with China, though Beijing has been careful not to let relations harm its close alliance with North Korea.
Last year, President Roh met with Mr. Gorbachev and announced plans to establish diplomatic relations.
After more than two years of denouncing their Soviet allies, the North Koreans began last year to make gestures suggesting they wanted to retaliate by opening some contacts with the Japanese.
At the same time, the two Koreas began to try some high-level contacts, including a first-ever series of meetings between the two governments' prime ministers.
"There's progress, but you have to remember Korea is not Germany, and reunification won't be so fast," a U.S. diplomat said. "The North Korean Communists have roots with their own people and are not kept in power by Russian troops the way the East Germans were."
But for many of Japan's estimated 680,000 Korean residents, who form the vast majority of this country's foreign population, the maneuvering among Japan and the two Koreas is at last producing increments of progress on issues that seem more immediate than unification of the motherland.
The overwhelming majority of Korean residents were born here, descendants of people brought to Japan as conscript laborers between 1910 and 1945, while Korea was a Japanese colony.
But Japan has no equivalent of the U.S. law that makes a citizen of anyone born on American soil, and most Koreans here are legally foreigners even though their parents -- and in some cases their grandparents -- were born in Japan.
"Our people have been here for generations, but we have no legal protection against hiring discrimination by Japanese employers and usually can't even get government jobs," Lee Bum Keel, the grandson of a conscript worker, said.