THE burgeoning economic relationship between China and South Korea is starting to look like the beginning of a political friendship.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin and South Korean President Kim Young Sam jointly and pointedly criticized Japan in the middle of the Chinese leader's five-day visit to South Korea this week. The Chinese leader also took positions at odds with North Korea, a move that seems likely to further isolate China's erstwhile Communist brethren in Pyongyang.
The visit - the first by a Chinese head of state to the Korean peninsula - is the culmination of rapidly warming ties between the two nations, which normalized diplomatic relations in 1992. Two-way trade between the two countries was worth an estimated $12 billion last year.
Japan as good occupier?
Japan came in for a drubbing because a Cabinet minister last week was exposed for having a benign view of his country's 1910-1945 occupation of the peninsula. The minister, Takami Eto, reportedly said Japan ''did some good'' during its occupation, such as building roads and improving the educational system.
South Korea forced Mr. Eto's resignation Nov. 13 by threatening to cancel a planned summit between Mr. Kim and Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.
One can imagine former British or French colonialists getting away with similar statements about their countries' rule in South Asia or Africa, but history is a touchy business in Asia.
This is not the first time that Japanese leaders of a certain generation have been reported making favorable remarks about a brutal period in Korean history. South Korea, still intent on ridding itself of the scars of that era, is in the middle of dismantling Japan's former imperial headquarters in downtown Seoul.
''Some political leaders in Japan refuse to recognize that they had waged a war of aggression against the Asia-Pacific region,'' Mr. Jiang told reporters Nov. 14.
''They must be cured of their bad habit,'' added Kim.
The Chinese leader also endorsed Seoul's view that the armistice on the Korean peninsula should be kept. The pact dates from the end of the Korean War in 1953. North Korea has lately sought to dismantle it in favor of a peace treaty with the United States.
North Korea has also insisted on dealing directly with the US in negotiations over its suspected nuclear-weapons programs. The North seems to be trying to disrupt ties between Seoul and Washington, but South Korea has meanwhile courted the North's Chinese allies.
With this visit, says a retired high-ranking South Korean diplomat, China is ''clearly signaling that the future of the peninsula is in South Korea.''
''We are getting very friendly,'' adds Chung Jeymoon, a South Korean legislator who advises Kim on foreign affairs.
Although China and Korea have their own historical sore spots, they share painful memories of Japanese occupation. ''It's no secret,'' says the retired diplomat, ''that when China and South Korea get together, they talk about Japan.''
China likes alternative
One reason cited for China's interest in South Korean investment and technology is that it provides an alternative to relying on Japan. ''The Chinese side would rather have cooperation with South Korea than with Japan,'' says Mr. Chung.
South Korea, a nation that has traditionally seen itself as a ''shrimp among whales'' in the Pacific, can always use a powerful friend. Its businesses have found in China huge markets and appealing sources of inexpensive labor.