Grass-root ties between Japan and South Korea look better than at any time since the end of World War II. Mutual understanding and friendship have deepened visibly over the past few years, as demonstrated by the successful cohosting of the 2002 World Cup and the surge of Japanese interest in South Korean pop culture. Seen against this backdrop, Friday’s summit meeting could not have been more cordial.

During the two-hour meeting, held in the hot springs resort of Ibusuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun agreed to expand bilateral exchanges and speed up talks on a free trade agreement. They also agreed to meet twice a year. The last time they met was in July, on the South Korean resort island of Jeju.

Japan and South Korea, as close neighbors, are destined to cooperate with each other. The immediate question is how to deal with the nuclear ambitions of North Korea. When it comes to the abductee issue, the two leaders are not exactly of the same mind, although both believe that bringing the North Koreans into the international community is essential to prosperity and stability in East Asia.

At a press conference following the meeting, President Roh said Japan should be very careful about imposing economic sanctions on North Korea. A majority of Japanese are angry with Pyongyang’s dishonest responses on the issue. Mr. Roh expressed concern that sanctions might adversely affect six-party talks on ending the North Korean nuclear standoff.

The advice for caution is well taken. Yet the possibility persists that sanctions will become a realistic option if Pyongyang continues to prevaricate. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il would be only too happy to see a rift between Tokyo and Seoul. Japan and South Korea should work more closely together toward resolving the nuclear and abductee problems.

Pyongyang’s reply regarding the fate of Ms. Megumi Yokota, one of the missing abductees, is difficult to understand. Recently it produced what it claimed was her human remains, but DNA tests here proved that they are somebody else’s. It simply defies common sense that Pyongyang has now rejected as “unacceptable” the result of a scientifically objective test conducted by an established research institution.

Both Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Roh also puzzled over this, but they agreed to wait and see because, they said, it is unclear at the moment what Pyongyang is up to. Did it hand over another person’s remains intentionally? Does it have something up its sleeve? Whatever the answer, Pyongyang should carry out a thorough reinvestigation, as Mr. Kim promised in his May meeting with Mr. Koizumi.

South Korea has its own abductee problem, but Mr. Roh’s top priority is to improve inter-Korean relations while working toward a resolution of the nuclear issue. It remains unclear, however, when the six nations involved — the United States, China, the two Koreas, Japan and Russia — will hold the next round of talks. The last round was held in Beijing in June.

No doubt Pyongyang is watching how the second administration of U.S. President George W. Bush begins. Therefore analysts say the next round may not be held until February or March. North Korea, meanwhile, has indicated, citing the abductee issue, that it will not sit down at the same table with Japan. One can only guess its real motives.

The U.S., South Korea and Japan need to cooperate closely on the nuclear issue. The question is whether they should emphasize more dialogue or pressure. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who at one time issued a veiled warning against sanctions, now takes a position that seems to suggest a hard line.

Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Roh also agreed on the need to step up discussions on U.N. reform. South Korea remains noncommittal on whether to support Japan’s bid for permanent U.N. Security Council membership; it has only made a nuanced statement to the effect that confidence is necessary in Asia. The statement could be taken to mean that Japan must first come to terms with its colonial past.

The two nations are planning a variety of exchange programs in 2005, the “year of friendship,” to mark the 40th anniversary of the normalization of relations. Four decades ago, the total number of Japanese and South Korea visitors was only about 10,000 a year. An estimated 4 million visitors are expected for 2004, and 5 million for 2005.

These figures, however, need to be taken with a grain of salt. Despite the boom in cultural exchanges, anti-Japanese feelings remain strong in South Korea. Emotional cinders could still flare up unless genuine efforts are continued steadily to establish a bilateral relationship that looks to the future, not the past.

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