Japan's 'no' on aid stirs South Korean resentment

One way to gauge the current temper of relations between South Korea and Japan is to walk along the short street in Seoul where the Japanese Embassy is located.

When cooperation is in the headlines, maximum security consists of a single police car parked discreetly down the road.

When discord is in the air, barriers partially block the way, and a busload of riot police stands by to fend off possible angry South Korean demonstrators.

In the past month, the barriers and riot police have been in position more often than not. Japan has turned a deaf ear to Seoul's request for a $6 billion loan to help finance South Korea's next five-year development plan.

South Korea's request followed a promise made by Japanese Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki to US President Reagan in May this year. Mr. Suzuki said that although Japan was not eager to increase its own defense spending -- in spite of US urging -- it would contribute to regional security by offering economic aid to other Asian countries.

South Korean officials point out that their country, which spends 35 percent of its budget on defense, stands as a buffer state separating Japan from the threat of North Korea and the Soviet Union.

South Koreans feel they should qualify for the promised aid, since Japan spends less than 1 percent of its gross national product on defense, compared with 6 percent for Korea, 5 percent for the United States, and an average of 3.5 percent for other NATO nations.

The South Korean press has quoted US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger as saying that Japan's military strength "is short of what is clearly needed." Most Koreans feel that their defense effort contributes to Japan's security and prosperity.

Japan turned down the loan request on the grounds that it was excessive and part of it was to be spent on defense -- which would be contrary to Japan's antiwar Constitution and would anger many Japanese pacifists.

A two-day ministerial conference earlier this month, attended by key Cabinet ministers from both nations, significantly failed to produce a joint communique; the best the ministers could manage was a joint press release agreeing on the need for further talks.

At a meeting of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' League a week later, the Japanese delegations showed more sympathy for Korea's defense burden and expressed concern at both the Soviet and North Korean military buildup. But although this was welcomed here as an easing of Tokyo's attitude, nothing concrete has emerged so far.

Although the loan request is the current bone of contention, it is only one of a series of issues that have caused Korean tempers to flare up against their powerful neighbor. Koreans remember all too clearly the bitter humiliation of 35 years of Japanese colonization before 1945 -- not to mention the ravages and incursions related in their history books.

Living in the shadow of the economic giant is not easy. "The Japanese are too greedy. They should now concentrate on sophisticated technology and leave the simpler jobs for us and other less developed nations, but they want it all," was a typical grumble from one prominent Korean businessman.

Last year Japanese criticism of the trial of leading South Korean dissident, Kim Dae Jung, was deeply resented by the Seoul government, which described it as "unwarranted interference in a purely domestic affair." The only members of the foreign press to be expelled from Korea during that troubled period, were Japanese.

Even as the loan dispute grumbles on this month, the Seoul government has lodged a protest against violation by a Japanese patrol boat of Korean territorial waters.

If Seoul's bid to host the 1988 Olympic games is successful this week, at least part of the joy will have been defeating its only competitor, the Japanese town of Nagoya.

"The Japanese have had their turn, now it is time for Korea." That comment by Korean author Peter Hyun referred to the Olympiad. But it could have applied to almost any issue by almost any South Korean.

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