FUKUSHIMA – The leaders of China and South Korea visited Saturday near the troubled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and tasted some local farm produce with Prime Minister Naoto Kan to show their support for Japan’s reconstruction efforts.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak sampled the produce after being welcomed by Kan at a gymnasium in the city of Fukushima, where evacuees of the nuclear crisis are sheltering. Wen and Lee had earlier toured other areas devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
It was the first visit by foreign leaders to the city, situated about 60 km from the nuclear plant, since the tsunami knocked out its reactor cooling systems, leading to radiation leaks and the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.
Before entering the gymnasium to offer words of encouragement to the evacuees, Kan guided them to a table of locally grown vegetables and fruit.
The leaders tasted cherries grown in the city and other produce from nearby farms, including tomatoes and cucumbers.
“It was very delicious,” Wen told reporters before leaving for Tokyo to attend an annual summit of the three countries.
Wen also said that China is ready to ease restrictions on Japanese agricultural products as long as they are safe.
Tokyo had reportedly wanted to formally open the summit in Fukushima, but the plan had to be scrapped because of logistics issues. Instead, the leaders visited devastated areas in Fukushima and then headed to Tokyo for a welcoming banquet.
Back in Tokyo, Kan told reporters: “With the two leaders visiting disaster-hit sites and evacuation centers, their warm feelings really came through. I’m very glad they came.”
Before meeting victims of the nuclear accident in the afternoon, Wen and Lee traveled separately to areas in hard-hit Miyagi Prefecture.
Both offered flowers and a moment of silence during their tour of the prefecture. China and South Korea quickly dispatched rescue teams and necessary supplies to the area following the twin disasters.
Clad in a navy blue working jacket, Lee went to the tsunami-stricken city of Natori to learn more about the damage and expressed his sympathy directly to some of the local residents.
“The world is impressed as it watches the attitude and courage that the Japanese people have shown in their effort to recover from the disaster,” he said. “I believe and hope that Japan will rebuild soon,” he said, adding South Korea will do all it can to help Japan.
Wen spent about a half hour at the Tatekoshi Elementary School in Natori. The school gym is serving as a shelter for 123 people.
He sat down with four families and spoke through an interpreter. He gave out gifts, including hand-cranked flashlights and radios.
The visits by Wen and Lee were highly sought by Kan at a time when Japan is struggling to restore domestic and international confidence in its ability to ensure the safety of not only its nuclear facilities, but also Japanese products in general.
Kan believes the get-together in Fukushima is a golden opportunity to dispel rumors that Japan and its products may be unsafe due to radiation contamination from the No. 1 plant.
During the two-day trilateral summit, Kan will likely ask that China and South Korea ease their import restrictions on Japanese food products, which were imposed in the midst of the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
Compared with industrial products, Japan’s food exports to China, South Korea and other parts of the world are minor, but the Japanese government and the private sector are concerned about the negative ripple effects throughout the economy if the country’s image is affected by prolonged import restrictions.
The three leaders will likely agree that ensuring the smooth flow of goods and people between the three countries is essential to Japan’s recovery.
But it remains to be seen to what extent the three countries will be able to agree on the scope of how to deal with the safety of Japanese food imports at their fourth trilateral summit, where the leaders will announce measures to improve disaster management and nuclear safety.