IN its relations with the two Koreas, Japan is finding it is easier to influence people than to win friends. In separate sets of talks, Japan is dangling promises of money to communist North Korea, which loses its Soviet subsidy next year, while offering South Korea high-tech help and better treatment of ethnic Koreans in Japan.
These lures have kept the attention of the two Koreas. As both countries admit, Tokyo, with all its economic power, can sway the delicate negotiations between north and south that began this year. After 45 years of hostile division, these talks are aimed to bring peace, and perhaps unity, to the Korean Peninsula.
Twice in November, South Korea's highest officials warned Japan to go slow in recognizing the north and paying several billion dollars to recompense North Korea for Japan's past colonization. Aid to North Korea as it faces economic trouble will reduce its willingness to negotiate, say South Korean officials.
South Korean warnings are ``obtrusive interference'' in the talks between North Korea and Japan, which are strictly a matter between the two countries, states North Korea's official newspaper. Normalization of ties with Japan ``has nothing to do with North-South dialogue,'' it said.
At the heart of the dispute, say both Japanese and South Korean officials, are differences over how best to bring North Korea out of its cold war isolation and the Stalinist rule of Kim Il Sung.
Opening North Korea with aid and trade will invite it into the world community and enlighten cloistered North Koreans about changes in East Europe, says a Japanese Foreign Ministry official. ``Pushing Kim Il Sung into a corner only makes him more dangerous and isolated,'' he said.
Moscow has told North Korea that starting next year, it will not provide oil on a barter basis. Desperate for hard currency, the north's only quick source of cash is $5 billion in reparations Japanese officials say it has requested.
South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Ho Joong told a group of Japanese ministers at talks in Seoul this week that Japan should be in lock step with the south in negotiating with North Korea. And South Korea's president, Roh Tae Woo, told the group that Japanese aid should not be used for military purposes.
Behind such comments lie deep suspicions of Japanese motives. In Tokyo, a South Korean diplomat said Japan may be using offers of money to the north as a way to keep Korea divided and thus prevent it from posing a greater economic challenge. Japan also may be trying to recover its influence over Korea from the United States, he added.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama, speaking in Seoul, pointed out that South Korea had established diplomatic and trade ties with the Soviet Union last month, while Japan remains unable to expand Soviet ties, because of a territorial dispute. Japanese business is watching South Korean competitors lock up Soviet trade deals.
``Japan feels free to reconcile with the north because the Soviets have reconciled with us,'' says the South Korean diplomat.
Washington has quietly sided with South Korea, advising Japan not to jeopardize north-south talks. The US is engaged in low-level talks with North Korea.
The path Japan chooses in its talks with North Korea is being seen as a test of its emerging leadership in Asia. Tokyo's leadership is divided over whether to follow the strong advice from the US and South Korea.
``Japan will try to improve its ties with North Korea strictly on its own initiative,'' stated a Nov. 28 editorial of the Asahi newspaper. ``The fact that South Korea from the start of the talks has warned Japan not to be hasty in improving ties with North Korea reflects South Korea's hope to remain economically superior.''
Japan, however, appears eager to clear up snags in its relations with South Korea. At ministerial talks this week, the two sides agreed to cooperate in high-tech research. Japan also agreed to eventually stop fingerprinting the 650,000 ethnic Koreans in Japan. President Roh threatened to cancel the planned visit of Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu in January if the fingerprinting dispute is not resolved.
Both Japan and South Korea will resume their separate talks with North Korea in mid-December the third round for both.