Japan Feeling Left Out as U.S. Talks to Pyongyang

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 17, 2008

TOKYO -- As the Bush administration inches toward a deal to reward North Korea for retreating from its nuclear ambitions, the odd man out in the negotiations is Japan, the closest ally of the United States in Asia.

The Japanese government appears resigned to the possibility that the United States may reach an agreement with North Korea -- and remove it from a list of outlaw countries that sponsor terrorism -- without addressing issues that Japan regards as fundamental to its national interest.

A deal based on nuclear issues alone "would not solve the matter" for Japan and it would refuse to normalize relations with North Korea, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said in a recent interview with The Washington Post.

The Japanese government wants the North to disable 200 to 300 medium-range missiles that Japanese officials say are capable of striking virtually any location inside Japan.

The government here is also demanding that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il provide credible information about the fate of eight Japanese citizens who Kim has admitted were kidnapped in Japan by North Korea agents in the 1970s and '80s. The North Koreans maintain that the eight are all dead, while Japan says they are alive.

The kidnapped citizens are a national obsession in Japan, and politicians here cannot afford to be perceived as neglecting them.

Trying to explain the emotional power of the issue for the Japanese people, a Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo recently compared the best-known of the missing abductees -- Megumi Yokota, who was 13 when she was kidnapped 30 years ago -- to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who made the world aware of the network of Soviet prisons known as the gulag.

"The nuclear issue, the missile issue that imposes a threat to Japan and the abduction issue would come as a set of three -- called a trilogy," Fukuda said in the interview. "Lacking any one of the three would not solve the matter."

Japan is a party to six-nation talks focused on North Korea's nuclear program. In the past year, though, those talks have largely been shaped by negotiations between the United States and North Korea.

Fukuda said he believed that President Bush was "cognizant" of Japan's concerns and that the United States would not conduct any "careless negotiations" with North Korea on nuclear matters. "But, in the meantime, Japan, needless to say, is making efforts of its own to try to resolve" its dispute with North Korea, he said.

Fukuda said that this month he again asked for China's help on the abduction issue, when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Japan.

The pace of U.S.-North Korean nuclear negotiations appears to have quickened in recent weeks.

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