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Koizumi, Bush Likely to Discuss N. Korea and Iraq

Security and rebuilding will be topics at Texas summit. Ties with Bush could aid Japan's leader.

May 23, 2003|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — In a break with Japanese tradition and the formality of many past summits, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will not be bearing lavish gifts when he meets today with President Bush in Texas. Chalk it up to the two leaders' relaxed relationship and the strong ties between their nations.

But Koizumi won't be empty-handed. He's expected to offer financial support for the Iraqi rebuilding effort, though the amount will probably mirror Japan's share of the United Nations budget, the minimum expected of the world's second-largest economy.

"As a rule of thumb, the magic number is 20%" of the cost, said Masaki Kanno, chief economist with JP Morgan Securities Asia Ltd. Japan paid 15% to 20% of "the Afghan bill, and Koizumi is likely to start around there."

Koizumi also brings some smaller offerings. His government is mulling over tighter restrictions on the flow of money to North Korea, with contributions and illegal drug proceeds key sources of funding for the communist regime. Japan has announced more vigilant patrols on the sea separating the nation and North Korea. Koizumi is also working to pass a bill allowing the Self-Defense Forces, Japan's military, to play a humanitarian role in Iraq.

In contrast to some earlier summits, however, there will be no promises; all of Koizumi's offers can be easily reversed if the measures run into too much opposition at home. Most of the steps dovetail with his domestic agenda anyway.

Koizumi arrived at Bush's ranch near Crawford on Thursday, flying in by helicopter. The president, wearing jeans and a casual shirt, picked up his guest at the landing zone in a pickup truck. They planned a casual meal, delaying their formal talks until this morning.

North Korea is expected to be the major item on the agenda as the two leaders meet at Bush's ranch, analysts say. Japan seeks reassurance that Washington will protect Tokyo's interests in any dealings with the North and that Japan remains a player in the diplomatic game. Tokyo had its nose bent slightly out of place when it wasn't invited to the U.S.-North Korea talks hosted by China last month.

The two leaders are also expected to discuss ways of countering North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons as well as scenarios that may unfold should the U.S. decide to significantly turn up the heat on Pyongyang.

The postwar reconstruction of Iraq will be another key topic. The U.S. would like to bring Japan on as a full political partner in the rebuilding phase. Japan, aware that the U.S. risks losing the peace after winning the war, will seek to limit its involvement to a financial and relatively noncontroversial role that doesn't jeopardize its relations with or energy supplies from the Arab world. As part of that strategy, Koizumi will travel on to Egypt to unveil a $200-million fund for medical supplies for Iraq.

The economy also appears to be intruding on the agenda, even though neither leader has displayed much passion for the issue -- or in Koizumi's case, say critics, even much understanding. Both are politically vulnerable given lingering global and national slumps.

The announced insolvency this week of Resona Bank, Japan's fifth-largest, has raised concerns about systemic problems. There also may be some brief discussion on currency issues -- a weaker dollar is threatening many already troubled Japanese companies by driving up the prices of their exports -- and some talk of deflation now that the U.S. is threatened by this longtime Japanese scourge.

The main emphasis, however, will be a feel-good reaffirmation of ties and a show of unity in regard to North Korea.

"The talks will end up being largely a performance to confirm the importance of the U.S.-Japan relationship," said Yoshihide Soeya, international politics professor at Keio University in Tokyo.

Koizumi, for his part, hopes to return home with some gifts, most of which will cost the U.S. very little. The most valuable, from Koizumi's perspective, are the images beamed to the folks back home of him clowning around with Bush, throwing baseballs and eating barbecue during their seventh summit.

Japanese place enormous weight on the personal relations their leaders have with U.S. presidents. Koizumi's friendship with Bush is political gold at home as he revs up for reelection in September as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Beyond that, Koizumi would love to return with some suggestion that the Bush administration has softened its approach toward North Korea and is more open to global cooperation.

Japan, which tends to be a group-oriented society, strongly supports the United Nations and multilateral foreign-policy initiatives. The Bush administration's go-it-alone stances, including its rejection of the Kyoto Treaty on global warming that was negotiated in Japan, rankles many.

Any hint that Koizumi has edged Bush away from a confrontation with Pyongyang gives the Japanese leader a chance to look strong back home.

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