SEOUL – With Pyongyang’s planned rocket launch looming over East Asian, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda had the perfect opportunity at this week’s global nuclear summit in Seoul to raise Japan’s presence in dealing with North Korea.
But Noda missed out on the chance as he arrived in Seoul only on Monday evening, skipping a working dinner that officially kicked off the two-day Nuclear Security Summit, and barely engaged in substantive bilateral talks.
“It was a very tight schedule, but I believe I was able to fully communicate” with the other leaders about urging North Korea to refrain from launching a rocket, Noda told reporters before heading back to Tokyo on Tuesday afternoon after his 18-hour stay in the South Korean capital. He did not wait until the summit wrapped up.
The prime minister was instead preoccupied with his key domestic task — pushing the consumption tax hike on which he has said he is “staking my political career.”
Prior to his trip to South Korea, Noda had been tied up with Diet deliberations on the tax hike, with his Cabinet aiming to approve the key bill Friday.
The government said before the trip there were no fixed plans for Noda to hold bilateral talks.
In effect, his main tasks at the summit were delivering statements about drawing lessons from the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. That message was delivered during Tuesday morning’s plenary session and working lunch afterward.
But Japan’s road to recovery from last year’s catastrophic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis was hardly the focus as North Korea’s planned rocket launch, which it says is to put a satellite into orbit, dominated bilateral talks. The launch is widely seen as a cover for a long-range ballistic missile test.
Among leaders Noda met briefly on the fringes of the summit were U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Naturally, he also spoke with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, the summit host. In all those meetings, Noda reaffirmed with them their nations’ cooperation to strongly urge North Korea not to launch the rocket, Foreign Ministry officials said.
Noda’s bilateral meetings were “impromptu chats that lasted for a few minutes,” an official said. The meeting with Hu only ran around five or six minutes and the one with Obama was even shorter, the official said.
Facing reporters Tuesday in Tokyo, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba indicated a need to change the way Diet business restrains prime ministers’ travels.
In contrast to Noda, both Obama and Hu arrived Sunday on the eve of the summit.
Obama took time out to visit the demilitarized zone on the border with North Korea, which, via now-stalled talks also involving the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China and Russia, efforts were being made to denuclearize Pyongyang.
China’s presence was also appreciated as leaders prodded Beijing to help in nudge North Korea to forego the launch.
As a lawmaker in the Liberal Democratic Party put it in Tokyo, the impression seems to be that Noda was “out of the loop.”
As things stand, political observers already see Japan as having little influence over North Korea, unlike China and the United States.
“Japan is a peripheral player with no significant leverage over Pyongyang” despite its strong interests in changing North Korea’s hostile policy, said Denny Roy, senior fellow of the East-West Center in Honolulu.
According to Roy, who focuses on Asia-Pacific security issues, “Japan is trapped into a noninfluential role unless it gives up its tough position on the abductee issue.”
Yoshihide Soeya, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Keio University, said Japan’s North Korean policies are being held “hostage” by domestic sentiment over the abductions, which has compelled the government to take a hardline stance.