Japanese Prime Minister Meets With Obama, Says Economy Complicates North Korea Talks

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso became the first foreign leader to meet with President Obama at the White House.
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso became the first foreign leader to meet with President Obama at the White House. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The global economic crisis has complicated the effort to end North Korea's nuclear ambitions, diminishing the "cards" for Pyongyang and nations seeking to end its weapons program, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso said in an interview yesterday.

Aso, fresh from a meeting at the White House with President Obama, praised the new administration's approach to the North Korean crisis as clearer than that in the waning months of the Bush administration. But he said the economic downturn has made it harder for China and South Korea to keep providing assistance to North Korea -- and harder for other nations to confront North Korea.

"With the world economy becoming more difficult, I believe the cards on hand for North Korea are becoming more restrained and more restricted," Aso said, speaking through an interpreter. "It's maybe difficult to move too urgently, and in terms of North Korea, it's probably more difficult for all the players to move."

Aso praised Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for demanding during a trip to Asia last week that North Korea agree to verifiable inspections of its nuclear facilities. The Bush administration, he said, had a tendency of "putting the issue of verifiable inspections in a bit of vague wording. I think, in that sense, the fact that Secretary Clinton was quite explicit about the verification inspection aspect is quite welcome."

The Japanese government was furious last year when President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in a bid to get Pyongyang to agree to a verification plan; North Korea pocketed the concession -- without having to account for the abduction of Japanese citizens -- but did not agree to any specific plan.

Aso noted that the South Korean government has become tougher on North Korea. In the six-nation negotiating forum, he said, breaking into English, "it used to be 4 to 2, but now it is at least 3 to 3." China and Russia are the other members of the talks.

Aso is the first foreign leader to meet with Obama at the White House, an honor for a politically embattled politician whose approval ratings have plunged to the single digits.

Speaking to reporters, Obama called the U.S.-Japanese relationship the "cornerstone of security in East Asia" as he and Aso began talks on the economic crisis, North Korea and Afghanistan.

"Obviously, the friendship between the United States and Japan is extraordinarily important to our country," Obama said.

The White House issued a statement saying the two men held "in-depth consultations," which Japanese officials said lasted about 75 minutes. Aso said Obama was "very impressive" in the meeting, "very straightforward, very sincere."

Aso came prepared with charts and figures as evidence that Japan's response to an economic slowdown in the 1990s provides a good guide to responding to today's crisis.

In the interview, he praised Obama's $787 billion stimulus as the right step in that direction.

The U.S. government's decision to use the stimulus to "invest into public works . . . this method is the correct one," he said. "When money is stored in banks and no one borrows that money, then financial institutions, banks, cannot survive. Then someone has to borrow that enormous amount of money, and the only one to do it is the government."

He added: "The United States is currently seeing an unprecedented phenomenon in which, even if interest rates are zero, businesses will not borrow money to invest into equipment. In such a situation, unless the government goes ahead and borrows that money, then we'll see a depression coming about."

He said he believed Obama looked closely at his charts. The Japanese parliament, he added, will soon pass its own stimulus bill that will be about 2 percent of Japan's gross domestic product -- roughly equivalent in size to the Obama legislation.

Aso also made a pitch for rail travel as a way to combat climate change, handing Obama a handwritten chart showing the percentage of Japanese who use rail as a primary mode of transportation.

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