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In the leadup to the 2002 World Cup soccer finals, Japan and South Korea are moving behind the scenes to prevent the sizzling political imbroglio over a right-leaning Japanese history textbook from spilling over into the cultural field.

The two Asian neighbors have designated 2002 as a year of grassroots exchanges in the hope of kicking off the finals with appropriate fanfare for the expected new era of friendship to be ushered in by their cohosting of the sports extravaganza.

Government sources said Saturday that Japan and South Korea expect to hold high-level cultural talks as early as late this month to prepare for the grassroots exchanges, despite the current political tensions.

Preparatory talks for the meeting between Japanese and South Korean officials in charge of the two countries’ respective bureaus of cultural exchanges were held at a lower level in Seoul on Thursday, the sources said.

But the preparatory talks, held one year before the 2002 World Cup soccer finals kick off, were kept secret at Seoul’s request, apparently out of fear of a domestic backlash over the move to return bilateral contacts to normal, even if only in the cultural arena, the sources said.

The preparatory talks also came just five days after Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers met on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting of the 25-nation Asia-Europe Meeting in Beijing.

Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka and her South Korean counterpart, Han Seung Soo, apparently made no progress toward resolving the textbook row during their talks.

But they did agree to make efforts to reinforce bilateral ties ahead of next year’s sporting events and to ensure smooth implementation of the various cultural and other exchange events scheduled for next year.

The junior high school textbook at the center of the dispute was authored by a group of nationalist historians and passed screening by Japanese education authorities in early April. South Korea and China both reacted angrily to the text, which they claim whitewashes Japan’s past military aggression toward its Asian neighbors. They have since demanded a series of modifications to the text.

The ongoing political tussle between Japan and South Korea over the controversial text has taken a heavy toll on the bilateral diplomatic calendar.

Many diplomatic events have been affected thus far, including a regular ministerial meeting that was originally planned for March but was postponed indefinitely.

The meeting had been scheduled in accordance with an agreement reached when South Korean President Kim Dae Jung made his first visit to Tokyo as a state guest in October 1998.

At that time, the South Korean leader voiced a strong desire to build a “future-oriented” relationship between the two neighbors and agreed with then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to establish the ministerial forum to informally hold a frank exchange of views on ways to establish such ties.

The forum, which is attended by several ministers from both countries, including prime ministers, has met twice so far.

Ties between the two countries have often soured over issues stemming from Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945, even after they normalized diplomatic relations in 1965.

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