TOKYO, SEPT. 23 -- As further proof, if any were needed, that post-Cold War politics makes strange bedfellows, there seems to be a new friendship building in East Asia between two unlikely allies -- Japan, a pillar of corporate capitalism, and North Korea, one of the last bastions of state socialism.
A delegation of top officials from Japan's two biggest political parties is to travel to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on Monday to begin forging relations between the longtime adversaries.
The two countries are separated by a 500-mile stretch of the Sea of Japan and at least 500 years of mutual hostility, but both have apparently decided they have something to gain from greater contact.
"North Korea is feeling pretty isolated, and they're looking for new relationships to develop," said a senior U.S. diplomat here. With Pyongyang's traditional allies, China and the Soviet Union, moving toward closer ties with South Korea, "the North has decided that maybe Japan doesn't look as objectionable as it used to."
For Japan, forging diplomatic and commercial ties with North Korea could enhance Tokyo's status as the leader of an increasingly united Asia. "It's the same reason that Japan has been so active on a Cambodian settlement," said the U.S. diplomat. "The country wants to be an important force in Asian affairs."
Closer relations -- or, for that matter, any relations at all -- might also allay the historic sense of mutual distrust between the two nations. Since time immemorial, the Japanese have looked fearfully at the Korean peninsula as a dagger pointing at the Japanese archipelago. For North Korea, fear of Japan has a basis in more recent history; less than a century ago, Japan conquered Korea and ran it as a labor colony for five decades.
While building a relationship takes time, both nations have some more easily attainable things in mind for this week's meetings.
The North Koreans reportedly want a formal apology for Japanese atrocities before and during World War II and monetary compensation. The Japanese delegation will carry a letter of apology from Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, presumably similar to the expression of "deep remorse" that Japan made to South Korea earlier this year.
The Japanese also are said to be willing to start talking about a compensation package. Japan paid compensation to South Korea of about $500 million 25 years ago. It is not clear what kind of figure Tokyo will offer Pyongyang now, but some payment seems certain.
Japan, meanwhile, will seek the release of two Japanese fishermen who have been held in prison in North Korea since 1983. Japan may also discuss beginning commercial ties between the two nations.
In preliminary talks for this week's visit, the two countries have reportedly discussed setting up "liaison offices" in each other's capitals to handle trade, travel and other bilateral interests. Such liaison offices could eventually lead to full diplomatic recognition, which the two nations have refused to extend to each other since the birth of North Korea in 1945.
One issue that is particularly galling to North Korea is the notation in every Japanese passport stating that the passport is "valid in every country of the world except North Korea." Officials here say this week's Japanese delegation may be authorized to promise that the phrase "except North Korea" will be removed.
Japan has had to deal delicately with Seoul as it makes overtures to the North. Kaifu called South Korean President Roh Tae Woo on Friday to explain the trip.