After months of foot-dragging, Japan appears willing to help Colombia pay for its ambitious, multibillion-dollar plan to crack down on drugs, achieve peace with guerrillas and rebuild its economy.

A Japanese government mission, headed by Mitsuo Sakaba, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Central and South American affairs bureau, will visit Colombia next week to explore possible Japanese assistance for the program, ministry sources said Thursday.

The sources said the mission will also include senior officials of the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation — two major government-affiliated aid organs.

During their five-day trip starting Monday, the envoys will discuss with Colombian officials areas in which Japan can help the Latin American country’s national development program, the sources said.

Plan Colombia, as the program is dubbed, was announced in September by President Andres Pastrana as a comprehensive strategy to address several challenges facing the country: cracking down on drugs, achieving a lasting peace with leftist guerrillas, promoting judicial reform and democratization, revitalizing the economy and promoting social development.

The Colombian government estimates Plan Colombia will require $7.5 billion over the next three years. While planning to pay $4 billion of the amount itself, Colombia has asked the international community to contribute the remaining $3.5 billion.

Japan has so far been less than enthusiastic about extending economic aid to Colombia — especially technical cooperation involving the dispatch of development experts — due primarily to security concerns.

Pastrana and other top-level Colombian officials have traveled around the world to sell Plan Colombia, and the country’s foreign minister visited Tokyo in March for the same purpose.

The U.S. administration of President Bill Clinton was quick to respond to the Colombian assistance request, pledging $1.6 billion in aid, including military equipment to crack down on drugs in areas controlled by leftist guerrillas. For the United States, curbing the inflow of drugs from foreign countries, especially Colombia, is a foreign-policy priority.

Before Pastrana took office in August 1998, relations between the United States and Colombia had significantly deteriorated due to a drug- related campaign-financing scandal involving his immediate predecessor.

But the Clinton administration has shown strong support for Pastrana, who, with his clean and fresh image, won the presidential election by the largest margin in Columbian history.

The Japanese mission comes ahead of a meeting of donor countries and organizations in Madrid on July 7 to discuss international assistance efforts for Colombia.

Although the Madrid meeting is not supposed to be a formal aid-pledging session, its success is widely seen as key to realizing Plan Colombia.

Although the 15 nations of the European Union have not yet pledged aid for the plan, Pastrana left in April on his second European tour since taking office to visit Britain, Spain and other countries to make doubly sure they will meet his financing requests.

Is Japan obliged to assist Colombia, to make an international contribution commensurate with its status as the world’s second largest economy?

One senior Foreign Ministry official says there are better reasons than that.

“Japan cannot be indifferent to Colombia’s problems because of the Panama Canal, which was returned by the U.S. to Panama at the end of last year,” the official said, requesting anonymity.

The official explained that the Panama Canal is only 250 km from the Panama-Colombia border, and that although the boundary area is a jungle, it would be easy for Colombian guerrillas to cross into Panama.

Colombian guerrillas pose a potential threat to foreign ships dependent on the canal, and Japanese ships are its second-heaviest users, the official said.