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Okada plays cards close to vest

Minister mum on how far he will press U.S.

by Jun Hongo

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada gave mixed signals Thursday on how far he will push Washington on the thorny issues of base relocation and Japan’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.

Speaking a day after taking his post, the new foreign minister said he will seek to build strong ties with his U.S. counterparts and assert Japan’s interests.

But while insisting the Democratic Party of Japan will try to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside of Okinawa Prefecture, Okada said that negotiations cannot proceed without first talking with the other party.

“We won’t be narrowing down our options at this point,” he said, hinting that drastic change is not out of the picture.

Okada also said he intended to critically review the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean and question whether ending it will actually cause critical damage to bilateral ties with the U.S.

DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa has called the dispatch “unconstitutional,” but the party doesn’t necessarily agree wholeheartedly with that view, Okada said.

“Negotiations should be held with an open mind,” he said.

As for North Korea’s nuclear program and the abduction issue, Okada said the six-party talks will remain the key framework for those subjects and that Japan does not intend to ask for any bilateral discussions with the North because Pyongyang has repeatedly breached its agreements with Japan, notably by testing a nuclear weapon in May.

The foreign minister has hinted that the DPJ will not stray far from the Liberal Democratic Party’s policies on North Korea, and stand firm in sanctioning the hermit state for its acts.

On Wednesday, he told reporters that the government will press ahead with a ship-checking bill that will allow North Korean vessels to be inspected.

Okada, whose father helped found Aeon, one of Japan’s largest retailers, graduated from University of Tokyo and worked at the trade ministry before turning to politics. He has served in key posts in the DPJ and was president between 2004 and 2005.

The Mie Prefecture native is known as an uncompromising expert in foreign affairs and the environment — a quality that even surprises his ministry’s bureaucrats.

“He faced reporters during the inaugural news conference yesterday without receiving any prior briefing from us,” a foreign ministry official said. “It’s amazing how Mr. Okada has all the information sorted out in his head.”

Get real: Clinton

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday urged Japan’s new administration to adopt a down-to-earth stance on security issues instead of trying to fulfill such campaign pledges as halting the antiterrorism support mission in the Indian Ocean.

“It was (former New York Mayor) Mario Cuomo who famously said, ‘You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose,’ ” she told reporters, noting the United States has already started “intensive” talks with the administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on issues of mutual concern.

The remarks came amid concern that if the Hatoyama administration pursues the security policy goals it pledged during the campaign, relations with the U.S. could be adversely affected.

Among such goals is to terminate in January the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan.

Another is to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station outside of Okinawa despite a 2006 Japan-U.S. accord stating the move is to take place within the prefecture.

Even so, Clinton was hopeful the two nations will be able to maintain their robust bilateral relationship.

“This is a new government for Japan. It’s a change, which is dramatic,” Clinton said.