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Fence-mending in Japan

Cheney's visit is meant to help soothe bruised feelings over the deal struck with N. Korea.

February 22, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — For his Japanese hosts, the key moment of Vice President Dick Cheney's visit Wednesday was not his discussion with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or his courtesy call to thank Emperor Akihito for Japan's dispatch of troops to Iraq.

It was his last-minute decision to squeeze in a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo with a Japanese couple whose daughter was kidnapped as a teenager by North Korean agents 30 years ago and whose fate is unknown.

Images of Cheney consoling the parents of Megumi Yokota were also designed to soothe the Japanese government's bruised sensibilities after the bargain struck last week at the six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program.

The deal has been heavily criticized in Japan for providing concessions to North Korea without mentioning the issue that has been elevated to sacred status in Japan: the fate of Megumi and at least 16 other Japanese civilians abducted by the North Koreans during the Cold War.

The abduction issue is highly emotional in Japan, where the missing civilians have become a cornerstone of government policy toward North Korea.

Their fate is further intertwined with the political career of Abe, whose rise to power was fueled by hard-line talk on the kidnapping issue.

But there was no mention of the abductees in the deal to shutter North Korea's main nuclear reactor, an omission that left Abe's government looking like it had been abandoned by its Washington allies.

The agreement included a provision for Washington to begin the process of removing North Korea's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, a move the Japanese say reduces their leverage with Pyongyang on the kidnappings.

"Japan's interests were totally sidelined," said Robert Dujarric, a Japan specialist based in Tokyo for the National Institute for Public Policy. "The U.S. did a deal with China and North Korea, and that impression is pretty bad in Japan. This is not their idea of how a partnership works."

Officials on both sides prefer to tout the U.S.-Japan alliance as being in the best shape ever. They cite the closer cooperation of their militaries, as well as Japan's participation in the U.S. antimissile defense program.

But Cheney arrived with other irritations rising.

The Abe government is upset with a U.S. congressional resolution calling on Japan to atone for the abduction and sexual slavery of women during its imperial era. And Washington was unhappy with recent critical comments by Japan's defense and foreign ministers about its handling of the war in Iraq.

That has contributed to an uneasy sense that the alliance needed some massaging. The closer ties in recent years have been driven by the twin imperatives of the U.S. desire for allies in Iraq and Japan's dependence on America for security in facing down the growing threat from North Korea.

But the trade-off is imperiled by the North Korean deal, which has given a boost to those Japanese voices calling for a more Asian-based foreign policy less dependent on Washington.

Commentators here have spent the last week debating the degree to which the Bush administration's newfound readiness to compromise with North Korea has left Japan isolated as the only hard-line holdout against Pyongyang.

So Cheney's visit, originally planned as a bit of drive-by diplomacy to show the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance, turned into more of an effort to shore up Abe's domestic standing.

The prime minister has been weakened by a series of scandals and the sense that he cannot control his ministers. The Japanese media was abuzz this week over reports that ministers do not stand up when Abe walks into a room.

It remains to be seen whether Cheney's visit will mitigate the troubles. Japanese officials were quoted in news reports here as saying that Cheney professed a "deep understanding" and sympathy for Tokyo's position on the abductions.

And they noted the vice president's willingness to participate in the symbolic meeting with the Yokotas, which was added to his schedule after he arrived Tuesday night.

"It was a very reassuring gesture on his part," said Yoshio Okawara, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States. "The visit was very productive.

"There has been some uneasiness in recent times," he said. "But relations are now better than before Cheney came."

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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