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Japan and Korea paper over cracks

The weekend summit between the leaders of South Korea and Japan, hosted by President Kim Young-sam for the Japanese Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, ended yesterday as it began, with a display of uneasy gimmickry.

When the two men had their first meeting on the Korean island of Cheju on Saturday, the gimmick was sartorial - instead of business suits and ties, the leaders wore sports jackets and open-necked shirts.

The intention was to promote a chummy, informal atmosphere. But East Asian politicians never quite cut the casual look, and the pair ended up looking more like elderly models in a menswear catalogue.

For the closing ceremony, the diplomatic image makers had come up with a different wheeze: instead of signing a joint declaration, Mr Kim and Mr Hashimoto exchanged footballs. This was an allusion to the main topic on the agenda, the 2002 World Cup which, after a fierce bidding war, has been jointly awarded to both countries.

When the result was announced last month, sports officials and candidate cities in both countries found it difficult to hide their dismay. But both leaders put a brave face on it yesterday.

"While embracing the burden of the past," said Mr Hashimoto, "we are trying to work out a future dream by taking advantage of the World Cup."

In the course of their talks, the two cautiously reaffirmed the standard bilateral positions on fisheries, security and North Korea. But the summit was more about avoiding controversy than beating out new policy.

"The burden of the past", for instance, is code for Japan's colonial occupation of Korea, the painful memory of which constantly dogs Seoul's relations with Tokyo. Its bitterest manifestation is the issue of the "comfort women" - Chinese, Europeans and, overwhelmingly, Koreans, 200,000 of whom were forcibly recruited into military brothels dedicated to servicing Japanese soldiers.

The subject was not touched on in the meeting between the two leaders but it inevitably arose in the post-summit press conference. "From the bottom of my heart I apologise and I am regretful," Mr Hashimoto told reporters. "At no time has women's honour and dignity been hurt more than in this case."

Such regrets have been voiced before, and the Prime Minister did not touch on the keenest controversy of the moment, the question of compensation for the 300 or so surviving women. After years of procrastination, the Japanese government has set up a private fund, which offers $18,500 (pounds 12,250) to each of them. Comfort women's organisations reject the sum, insisting on official compensation.