North Korean threat makes strange bedfellows of South Korea and Japan

March 27, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Tensions from North Korea's potential involvement with nuclear weapons have produced at least one consequence the isolated country could not possibly have intended: an accelerated thawing of the long-standing animosity between South Korea and its former colonial occupier, Japan.

A three-day stay in Tokyo by South Korean President Kim Young Sam concluded yesterday with both him and Japan's Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa emphasizing the seriousness of the North Korean threat and the need to promote "common security" and a "unified response."

The leaders of the two nations spent considerable time discussing North Korea in meetings Thursday and yesterday, but the substance of the talks was not disclosed.

Along with clear statements of cohesive relations and enhanced economic ties, it was reported here that South Korean Defense Minister Rhee Byoung Tae will come to Japan in April, raising the possibility of unprecedented military ties between the countries.

That was impossible before because of the militaristic legacy of Japan that concluded with its defeat in World War II and subsequent renunciation of armed force.

Japan first invaded the Korean peninsula 500 years ago and brutally ran it as a colony between 1910 and 1945.

Intense contempt and bitterness remain in each country, with many Japanese families actively discouraging intermarriage with Koreans, and Korea blocking the importation of Japanese movies, books and other products loosely described as cultural that may reflect Japan's values or social norms.

"Our peoples should discard past prejudices for good and accept each other," said President Kim in a speech Friday at Waseda University. "Young people of both countries, who are not steeped in old attitudes, must take the lead."

In a highly symbolic gesture, President Kim twice invited Japanese Emperor Akihito to come to Korea. It was in the name of Emperor Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito, that the past Japanese colonization was pursued.

His visit would almost certainly be controversial in Korea.

The emperor said his acceptance would depend on a decision by the Japanese government. He did, however, give Mr. Kim a forthright statement of contrition for his country's past transgressions.

A previous apology by Emperor Akihito, given in 1990, was described at the time as almost indecipherable because of its many equivocations and as a result, engendered much ill-will.

Lingering animosity over Japan's prior refusal to confront its past had tainted past summits between the two nations.

But Mr. Hosokawa has been relatively forthright in apologizing to Korea and Mr. Kim has been more willing than his predecessors to extend discussions to new areas.

Both leaders emphasized that resolution of the current stalemate with North Korea would involve joint action by each, as well as the involvement of the United States, China, and even a nonisolated North Korea.

Suspicions, however, continue to lurk in the background.

Persistent South Korean fears of Japan's own construction of nuclear weapons prompted Mr. Hosokawa to directly reassure Mr. Kim that regardless of what North Korea or any other country would do, Japan would not enter a nuclear arms race.

After concluding his visit here, Mr. Kim left for China, where he is expected to urge senior officials in Beijing to persuade their longtime Communist allies in Pyongyang to cooperate with U.N. inspections of nuclear facilities.

Under pressure, the North increasingly has responded with threats of war, placing its troops on alert, banned all domestic travel and told its people that war appears inevitable.

In response, South Korea put its 650,000-strong standing armed forces, aided by 36,000 U.S. troops, on alert.

The Pentagon also has ordered the Air Force in South Korea to build up its supply of munitions and spare parts there, and it hopes to send artillery-locating radar, Apache attack helicopters and precision-guided anti-tank munitions.

On Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry called the move "a prudent precaution" and said that he will visit South Korea in mid-April to discuss the increasingly tense situation.

North Korea has concentrated most of its 1.2 million troops close to the border with South Korea.

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