THE world took little notice of the meeting between South Korea's President Kim Young Sam and Japan's Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa Nov. 6-7. But it was a major step toward reconciliation between two countries with a complicated and bitter past - almost comparable to the historic reconciliation between France and the former West Germany after World War II.
At the outset of their day-and-a-half meeting in the ancient Korean capital of Kyongju, Mr. Hosokawa told his host that he ``deeply apologized for the unbearable pain and sorrow'' the Japanese had inflicted on Koreans during the period of colonial rule (1910-45). He specifically cited the ban on teaching Korean in schools and the wartime forcing of Koreans to adopt Japanese surnames.
While previous Japanese prime ministers have talked about ``the unfortunate past'' and ``regretted'' the dragooning of Korean women to serve as ``comfort women'' for the Japanese army, Hosokawa's was the most clear and comprehensive expression of repentance by any Japanese leader so far.
With the rumpled hills of Kyongju and its thousand-year history as a backdrop, neither Mr. Kim nor Mr. Hosokawa needed to be reminded how long and intertwined Japanese and Korean relationships have been.
But the recent history of exchanges has been troubled, and Korean resentments have grown as successive Japanese leaders failed to respond to demands that the mistakes of the past be acknowledged before the formation of an honest new relationship.
All the more important was Hosokawa's unequivocal acknowledgment of Japan's fault. Korean newspapers gave banner headlines to Hosokawa's remarks and to Kim's response that he was ``deeply impressed'' by his guest's ``clear recognition of past history.'' Both leaders pledged to do their utmost to establish a new relationship of close cooperation between their two countries.
South Korea and Japan have a long way to go before they totally emulate the French and the Germans. South Korea still fears what it regards as Japanese cultural and economic imperialism, from movies to cars, while Tokyo is wary of South Korean efforts to undercut the Japanese once Korean tycoons have acquired Tokyo's advanced technology.
But Hosokawa's straightforward manner and the personal rapport he has achieved with Kim puts the Japan-South Korea relationship on a new basis. It is bound to affect ties with the United States as well. Hitherto, Tokyo and Seoul have had closer, more inside-the-family exchanges with Washington than with each other, despite their awareness that, in order to create a stable post-cold-war environment in East Asia, they have got to open their hearts to each other.
By fortunate timing, Kim and Hosokawa came to power under somewhat similar circumstances and with very similar goals. Kim is South Korea's first nonmilitary president in 32 years and is working energetically to reform a political and economic structure in which corruption seemed endemic. Hosokawa is Japan's first non-Liberal Democrat prime minister in 38 years; he seems equally determined to carry out reform policies that will bring about alternation in government and help Japan to be more open to the world.
These are developments that Washington should welcome. East Asia, unlike Europe, has not set up a military-economic community of nations sharing democratic values, because for most of the postwar years Japan was the only practicing democracy in the region, albeit with a one-party government.
A formal community like the European Community or NATO may never be formed, but the building blocks for a common front of nations enjoying democracy and free-market economies are taking shape one by one. Reconciliation between Japan and South Korea, not merely in words but in the sharing of similar institutions and values, is one of the most important of these building blocks.
Already Tokyo and Seoul share a strategic interest in seeing that the one rogue power in the region, North Korea, does not acquire nuclear arms and remains within the framework of the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In their talks in Kyongju, Kim and Hosokawa agreed that talks with North Korea should proceed with patience - meaning there should be no hasty resort to United Nations-imposed economic sanctions.
To combine firmness and patience is not easy when dealing with an unpredictable neighbor like Pyongyang. But that is what the situation requires. Elimination of resentment and suspicion between Tokyo and Seoul makes a joint approach to this question practical, and it will quite possibly be one of the first fruits of the partnership forged in Kyongju.