Tokyo — "Korea as No. 2," said a recent headline in a Japanese newspaper. The term, a takeoff on Ezra Vogel's best sellr, "Japan as No. 1," suggests that 38 million South Koreans are hot on the heels of the Japanese in the race to build the world's most dynamic, fast-growing economy.
But the South Koreans shoulder a burden the 117 million Japanese have done without for decades. Six percent of the South Korean gross national product ($ 60.9 billion in 1981) goes for defense. Japan, by contrast, spends only 0.9 percent of its $1 trillion-plus GNP on defense.
After many months of cool-to-frigid relations, Seoul's ties with Tokyo are warming again. South Korean Foreign Minister Lho Shin Yong has just been to Tokyo for talks with his Japanese counterpart, Sunao Sonoda. On Sept. 9 and 10 a large group of Japanese Cabinet ministers will travel to Seoul for the first full-fledged Japanese-Korean ministerial meeting since September 1978.
In inviting the Japanese ministers to Seoul, President Chun Doo Hwan's major purpose is said to be to let top members of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki's administration see with their own eyes the economic progress that his people have made, and also to impress upon them his long-held conviction that South Korea defends the free world's front line against the communist foe.
South Korea, in other words, is a forward bastion both for the United States and for Japan. The 600,000-man standing Army that Seoul maintains along its 38 th parallel frontier with communist North Korea defends not only South Korea, but Japan itself.
That is the South Korean logic, and although it was not expressed quite so bluntly by Mr. Lho during his talks with Mr. Sonoda, Seoul's foreign minister made plain his belief that South Korea's defense expenditures were contributing to Japan's security and that on this basis, his country was entitled to request economic aid from Tokyo.
Thus, Japan, already under pressure from the Reagan administration to raise its defense spending substantially, finds itself under additional pressure to increase economic aid as well, as a substitute for the direct military assistance its Constitution prevents it from supplying.
The Japanese are highly conscious of the South Koreans as commercial rivals, whether in television, shipbuilding, steel, or lucrative Middle Eastern construction contracts.
The South Koreans, on the other hand, point not only to Japan's harsh prewar record of colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula, but also to the enormous imbalance in Korea- Japanese trade during the past 15 years.
Over these years, Japan has accumulated a favorable trade balance, totaling $ 20 billion. Japanese economic aid to South Korea, by contrast, has not been worth much more than $100 million a year. Last year, it did not even come up to this figure.
South Korea is about to start a five-year plan that will emphasize steel and energy projects, as well as transportation and public welfare. In his talks with Mr. Sonoda, Mr. Lho requested that Japan contribute $6 billion in economic aid during the period of this plan (1982-86).
Mr. Sonoda is said to have expressed understanding for South Korea's heavy defense burden but to have added that Japan could not contribute so large a sum and that in any case economic aid and security were two distinct matters.
The South Korean request is likely to be repeated when Mr. Sonoda and his colleagues travel to Seoul for their ministerial meetings next month. The Japanese attitude is that if there are specific projects appropriate for Japan to aid, these will be considered, probably on a year-by-year basis.