Korean leader tries to pull relations with Japan out of doldrums

Assessing the visit to Japan this week of South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun wrote: ''The success or failure (of the visit) rests with Japan. It could tear down the wall of longstanding Korean distrust ... or rekindle anti-Japanese sentiment.''

This typifies the widely varying views being expressed about the first formal occasion on which a Korean head of state has set foot on Japanese soil.

For many Koreans it is a satisfying moment. The three-day visit, which starts today, comes 39 years after they cast off Japanese colonial rule. There is a strong sense of South Koreans glorying in their new-found economic prosperity and ready to deal as an equal with a former master.

There is some concern in Tokyo, however, that the Chun visit is being overplayed. With the aftertaste of Japanese colonization yet to dissipate, some government officials here have been quietly voicing skepticism and concern about heralding Chun's arrival today as the advent of a new era in Tokyo-Seoul relations.

A senior Foreign Ministry official who asked to remain anonymous stressed that ''the mere exchange of visits between South Korean and Japanese leaders must not be taken as amounting to a miraculous event by which all unresolved issues between the two nations will be settled in an instant.''

Political analysts are pointing out that diplomatic relations were established only 19 years ago, and that all the talk about a ''new era'' stems from a realization by both Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and President Chun that the 1965 pact formalizing ties was not substantive enough to dispel lingering hard feelings.

President Chun, too, appears to be trying to lower his countrymen's expectations about the historic visit, stressing it is a symbolic occasion rather than a stage for settling specific issues.

This was seen as a caution to the local press, which has been spear-heading a campaign for early Japanese action on several Korean grievances. These range from an imperial apology for past Japanese misdeeds on the Korean peninsula to balancing of currently lopsided trade.

Political analysts detected signs of concern in the Seoul government that the public's expectations were excessively high, perhaps leading to an explosion of domestic unrest if the President fails to produce the goods.

An imperial apology is merely one of the worries facing the Nakasone government. Involving the emperor in what is essentially a political issue is abhorrent to older, conservative politicians. Nevertheless, the Foreign Ministry sees a strong need to do something to lift Tokyo-Seoul relations out of the doldrums.

But despite his desire to play down the concrete significance of his visit, President Chun seems to have been impelled by the deep, underlying anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea to make several specific requests. Meeting the Japanese ambassador in Seoul last week, Chun indicated he wanted to see Japanese action in four key areas:

* Better treatment for several hundred thousand Koreans living in Japan. Seoul newspapers frequently highlight stories about how Korean residents here are discriminated against in housing, education, and job opportunities.

* Steps to create more balanced trade. South Korea suffered a $2.83 billion deficit with Japan last year, up from $1.9 billion in 1982. Without the Japanese trade, the Koreans argue, they would consistently be in surplus worldwide. Last month Seoul submitted a list of 60 items on which Korea wanted preferential treatment. Most involved ''sunset industries'' now receiving government protection against growing Korean competition.

* Transfer of Japanese high technology, such as semiconductors, computers, telecommunications equipment, and biotechnology. Such demands, however, arouse Japanese concern over the ''boomerang effect'' - that high-tech aid to developing countries may result in a shrinking Japanese share of world markets.

* Japan's northeast Asian policy. Japan's moves to promote dialogue with North Korea worry the Seoul government. Recently Chun warned that war could break out in Korea within the next five years and that hasty rapprochement between Tokyo and Pyongyang could be misinterpreted by North Korea.

Japan's latest move is to promote the idea of both North and South being admitted as members of the United Nations. Others warned that if Japan pursued such a policy without securing the trust of South Korea, relations between the two countries could flounder.

Not everyone welcomes the Korean head of state. Among political parties, the Socialists and Communists are opposed - the former because no invitation has been issued for a matching visit by North Korea's President, the latter because it sees the Chun visit as cementing the Japan-Korea-US military alliance.

Meanwhile, various civic and left-wing radical groups plan demonstrations against a ''cold-blood military dictator.''

President Chun may not notice the protests, however. He will be protected each day by some 23,000 police, more than half the Tokyo force. Police have conducted daily searches for bombs and terrorist hide-outs along Chun's scheduled routes in Tokyo since June. Traffic around the imperial palace has been subject to security checks since mid-August.

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