President George W. Bush on Friday welcomes Yasuo Fukuda, the third Japanese prime minister in as many years, to the White House as Washington and Tokyo seek to keep up strong ties despite differing priorities on dealing with North Korea.
Washington is also concerned about political deadlock in Japan, where Mr Fukuda has failed to win upper house support to extend naval missions in the Indian Ocean to refuel US-led anti-terror operations. Japan withdrew its ships on November 1 after six years when temporary legislation ran out.
The US was enthusiastic about the tougher line of Shinzo Abe, Mr Fukuda’s predecessor, on issues such as reforming Japan’s constitution to give the country a more significant military role. However, Mr Fukuda’s reduced emphasis on assertive diplomacy should reduce tensions over North Korea, which the US is soon likely to take off the list of state sponsors of terrorism in line with agreements reached in six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.
The issue is particularly sensitive for Japan because North Korea abducted Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s and has failed to identify the whereabouts or give credible accounts of the deaths of over 10 of them.
This week, a group of Japanese campaigners seeking greater government action on resolving the cases has been in Washington, meeting administration officials from a range of departments, as well as US congressmen.
The US has made clear that, despite the lack of progress concerning the abductees, it will proceed with taking North Korea off the terrorist list – which it is scheduled to do by the end of the year, in parallel with North Korean steps to provide a full account of its nuclear activities and disable its Yongbyon reactor.
“How one gets on the state sponsors list is in accordance with US law,” Tom Casey, a US state department spokesman, said this week. “And that is how North Korea can and would be removed from the list. In terms of the abductee issue, the two are not necessarily specifically linked.”
Under statutory rules, the administration has to give Congress 45 days’ notice before taking a country off the terrorist list – which would mean that it would have to announce its intentions on Friday if it was to take Pyongyang off the list this year. Observers in Tokyo say that it would be a humiliation for Mr Fukuda if notification was sent while he was in Washington.
Last month, Christopher Hill, the US representative in the six-party talks, said the US would take into account when the country was last deemed to have sponsored terrorism, if it had signed up to international covenants on terrorism, and whether it had publicly agreed to halt any support for such activities.
In an interview with the FT this week, Mr Fukuda strongly hinted he regarded the nuclear and missile threat from Pyongyang as a more important issue than that of the abductees. However, spelling this out would risk upsetting much of the Japanese public. The prime minister said he hoped the three problems of nuclear capability, missiles and abductees could be solved at “more or less the same time” indicating a willingness to continue plugging away at the abductee issue in bilateral talks.