Will Koizumi keep distance from Bush at G8 summit?

by Eric Talmadge

Fresh off a high-profile diplomatic dash to North Korea, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will be heading into next week’s annual Group of Eight summit at Sea Island, Ga., with a stronger hand than usual.

His popularity is on an upswing, and the nation’s economy is sputtering back to life after a long slumber.

But some analysts say he might want to keep a bit of distance between himself and U.S. President George W. Bush.

Cozying up to American presidents at G8 summits has long been a major objective for Japanese leaders, who are quick to stress that the United States is Japan’s biggest trading partner and a key military ally.

Japanese media often judge the success of the summit by analyzing the relative positions of the two leaders in the traditional group photo — the closer the better.

But Koizumi might find himself in a somewhat more complex position this year.

Despite the presence of dissenters France and Germany at the June 8-10 summit, Koizumi is expected to stand by his decision to join Bush’s “coalition of the willing” by sending hundreds of Japanese troops on a humanitarian mission to southern Iraq — this country’s biggest and most dangerous military operation since World War II.

But with insurgency-related violence in Iraq on the rise and the Liberal Democratic Party headed into a House of Councilors election in July, analysts say Koizumi’s steadfast support of Bush is threatening to become a liability.

“People are beginning to feel that America’s Iraq policy was a failure, and that Koizumi made a great mistake by going along with it,” said Jin Igarashi, a professor at Tokyo’s Hosei University. “He should use the summit to make suggestions or present Japan’s positions. But I fear he will just nod along with Bush.”

Many voters seem to agree.

“Koizumi should voice his opinion more,” said Yoshie Kidokoro, a 30-year-old company employee in Tokyo. “It looks as if Koizumi sent the troops to Iraq just to please America.”

On North Korea, a more emotive issue for the Japanese public, Koizumi has also generally followed Washington’s lead and has vowed to focus on multilateral efforts to convince the North to give up its nuclear weapons program.

But, pushed by domestic public opinion, he chose to buck Bush’s policy of not dealing one-on-one with the North and flew to Pyongyang for a one-day summit May 22 that resulted in the release of the children of four Japanese who were abducted by North Korean agents decades ago, but who have since returned.

He won the release of the abductees themselves in a summit with leader Kim Jong Il in 2002.

Koizumi failed, however, to convince the American husband of the fifth repatriated abductee to join his wife in Japan.

Charles Robert Jenkins refused to accompany Koizumi to Japan because he is accused of deserting his U.S. Army unit in 1965 and will likely be extradited to face a court-martial if he lands here.

Tokyo has asked Washington to give Jenkins special consideration, with Koizumi expected to raise the issue in bilateral talks with Bush.

But officials here say they are not optimistic that Bush will make any concessions.