KIICHI MIYAZAWA, embarking on his first overseas trip as prime minister on Jan. 16, plans to ask South Korea, a vocal critic of Japan among Asian nations, to become a partner in regional diplomacy, say Japanese officials.
His three-day trip, however, may be overshadowed by Korean reaction to a dramatic about-face by Japan. On Jan. 13, the government admitted that its wartime army forced tens of thousands of Korean women into serving as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers in China and Southeast Asia.
Three of the so-called Korean "comfort girls" filed suit against Japan last month, 46 years after the end of the war. At the time, the government claimed that the front-line brothels were private enterprises, but it was forced to change its stance after the Asahi newspaper of Japan unearthed evidence of military complicity.
The incident, another example of Japan's difficulties in dealing with the lingering resentment among Koreans toward the brutal Japanese occupation of their peninsula from 1910 to 1945, is not expected to deter Tokyo's efforts to seek closer ties with Seoul, including possible joint diplomacy in Asia.
"Relations have been good compared to the past," said Eiji Yamamoto, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official, adding that the two nations should seek a "new mission" of bringing peace and prosperity to Asia together.
Up to now, the two neighboring countries have relied more on their close ties with the United States than with each other in international diplomacy. And last year, Seoul accused Tokyo of a "growing aggressive posture" in its military buildup.
Mr. Miyazawa will be the first Japanese prime minister to spend more than one night in South Korea. He also will be the first to speak before the National Assembly. And, in a symbolic gesture, he will visit Kyongju, the site of a 7th-century kingdom that first unified Korea.
"Koreans think the Japanese occupation helped to divide the country and now worry that Japan may want to keep it divided to prevent a strong and competitive Korea," says a South Korean official. "Miyazawa's visit to Kyongju is a way to deal with public opinion."
Miyazawa is expected to reassure President Roh Tae Woo that Japan will not provide aid to North Korea until that country removes doubts about its alleged nuclear-weapons program.
He also will offer some form of apology for the Japanese occupation in a further attempt to placate Korean resentment, which persists despite recent statements of contrition by the Japanese emperor and the previous prime minister.
Seoul has emerged a strong player in Asia after making rapid progress in its ties with Moscow, Beijing, Hanoi, and North Korea since 1988. Last year, it was credited with arranging for China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to join a new grouping of Asian-Pacific nations, and then hosting a meeting of the group.
While Seoul may go along with Miyazawa's offer for some sort of partnership, South Korean officials say they are more interested in Japan's sharing its technology and reducing a lopsided bilateral trade imbalance. South Korea's trade deficit doubled last year to $9.66 billion, with 94 percent of that attributed to Japan. Korea will also seek greater access to the Japanese market.