THE distant past will be very much present when South Korean President Roh Tae Woo pays a visit to Japan Thursday through Saturday. The trip almost failed to come off when the two Asian neighbors disagreed over how to deal with the human legacies of Japan's 1910 to 1945 colonization of Korea.
Wiping clean the slate of history has become increasingly important to both countries as they deal with a declining United States military presence in Asia. South Korea, as a former victim of sometimes brutal oppression, is having more difficulty than Japan in leaving the past behind.
The living reminders of their past are about 750,000 Korean residents in Japan. The first generation of immigrants came as subjects, often by force, for wartime labor. The second generation stayed on after the end of World War II and enjoyed the fruits of Japan's economic boom. Most chose not to try the difficult task of asking to be Japanese citizens. Their legal status was hammered out in a 1965 agreement.
Now there are four third-generation Koreans, all infants, whose unsettled legal status was an issue hanging up Mr. Roh's official visit.
Should they, like their parents and grandparents, be treated as aliens, fingerprinted, and kept legally apart from Japanese citizens? The debate was more contentious between Japan's ministries than between the two countries.
Those officials dealing with internal security made a pitch for keeping a tight watch on the minority Koreans, especially the sizable number with allegiances to Communist-run North Korea. Others trying to improve Japan's global image wanted to grant more rights to the new generation of Korean residents.
Months of high-level diplomacy finally yielded a compromise on April 30. The third generation are to be granted permanent residence. They cannot vote and must still carry an identity card, but the fingerprinting has been dropped.
``The issues are not really for us to negotiate,'' says Lee Kong Koo, adviser to Roh. ``It's strictly a Japanese decision on how it will shape its society for the next century.''
Roh has been criticized at home for not obtaining full citizen rights.
And he is getting pressure to extract a full apology from Japan for its exploitative occupation.
``Most Koreans are expecting something,'' says Lee Joung Binn, South Korea's assistant foreign affairs minister. Japanese officials say they know they must deal with the Koreans' strong emotions on the matter of how Japan regards its past.
Korea wants an apology from the new emperor, Akihito. His father, Hirohito, addressed the issue during a 1984 visit by then-Korean President Chun Doo Hwan: ``It is indeed regrettable that there was an unfortunate past between us for a period in this century and I believe that it should not be repeated.''
This was not specific or contrite enough, Korean officials say, to ensure that the past would not be prologue.
``We don't want to carry the legacies of the 20th century into the 21st century,'' Dr. Lee says.
Japanese officials say any new statement on the past cannot come from the emperor because the postwar Constitution requires that he keep out of politics. Instead, Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu says he will ``candidly and humbly'' recognize ``the circumstances of history'' during Roh's stay.
Just the same, the Korean president will have a private chat with the emperor.
``We'd like Japan to take an enlightened attitude,'' says Lee. ``We'd like to build a new neighborhood [in northeast Asia].''