WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda pledged to U.S. President George W. Bush on Friday that he would make his utmost efforts to resume a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean that was supporting U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan.
In joint remarks to the press after their first summit since Fukuda took office in September, Bush assured Fukuda that the United States will not forget the fact that North Korea abducted Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.
“I understand, Mr. Prime Minister, how important the issue is to the Japanese people, and we will not forget the Japanese abductees, nor their families,” Bush said.
But Bush also skipped over the one issue Japan was most concerned about: whether the U.S. would take North Korea off its list of terrorist-sponsoring nations as a reward for making progress on denuclearization.
Japan fears the move will weaken its leverage for resolving the abduction issue, which has become part of the six-party talks on denuclearizing North Korea. The talks involve the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia.
On the refueling mission, Bush said in the joint remarks that he appreciates the “great leadership” Fukuda is showing in his attempt to revive the Maritime Self-Defense Force mission.
In Japan, Fukuda has been struggling to make a breakthrough in domestic politics, which has been stuck in gridlock ever since the Democratic Party of Japan led the opposition to take control of the Upper House in July. The opposition then blocked a bill that would have allowed Japan to extend the mission before it expired Nov. 1.
Fukuda, whose Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc has drafted a new bill to resume the mission, told President Bush he will “do my best for the early passage of the bill.”
Fukuda said at the news conference that, “On the abduction issue, President Bush . . . renewed his promise of the unchanging support to the Japanese government.”
The two leaders reaffirmed their strong alliance at the summit, which comes at a time the two countries are also facing trade issues, such Japan’s food-safety restrictions on U.S. beef imports. But the refueling mission and North Korea remain the top issues for Japan.
The two leaders agreed to continue “close cooperation” on getting North Korea to completely abandon nuclear weapons through the six-party talks.
As for the possibility of taking North Korea off the terrorism blacklist, however, a Japanese official who briefed reporters refused to reveal what transpired between Fukuda and Bush, citing an “understanding with the U.S. side” about not going into detail.
Fukuda explained “the importance of Japan and the United States cooperating on issues, including the removal of North Korea’s status as a terrorist-sponsoring nation,” the official said.
Bush was quoted as saying that he understood Japan’s concerns that the U.S. may set aside the abduction issue to reach a deal with the North, and that he will not forget the abduction issue.
In his first overseas visit as prime minister, Fukuda laid out his signature policy of promoting Asian diplomacy, which he believes is in the common interests of both Japan and the United States.
“I told (President Bush) that I firmly believe such active Asian diplomacy will lead to further strengthening of the Japan-U.S. alliance . . . and I feel very encouraged in receiving support from the president,” Fukuda said.
Japan disappointed the United States by withdrawing its two ships from the Indian Ocean.
It is unclear whether the ruling and opposition parties will be able to strike a deal on continuing the mission in a divided Diet where the ruling bloc dominates the House of Representatives and the opposition camp controls the House of Councilors.
Earlier this week, the Lower House passed a bill in a plenary session to allow the resumption of the mission and immediately sent it to the Upper House for deliberation — a move an opposition member criticized as a sign the prime minister’s hoped to take “a souvenir” with him on his U.S. trip.
But there are no clear prospects for its passage amid the strong resistance from the opposition, which says the mission is unconstitutional.