A foreign policy hardliner has gained a stronger presence in the administration since he accompanied Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Pyongyang for his historic Sept. 17 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, 48, was one of the first politicians to insist on the early recovery of a North Korean spy ship that sank off the Amami Islands of Kagoshima Prefecture after a gunbattle with Japan Coast Guard vessels late last year.

He was also one of the first to demand punitive measures targeting North Korea.

Since U.S. President George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran, Abe has also insisted on a stronger military alliance with the United States.

Political sources said it was Koizumi who asked Abe on Aug. 30 to accompany him to Pyongyang as an assistant, the same day the prime minister announced his surprise North Korean visit.

Koizumi reportedly told Abe, “I would like you, a hardliner, to accompany me.”

One of the North Koreans present at the Paekhwawon state guesthouse on the outskirts of Pyongyang for the Koizumi-Kim summit was Kim’s interpreter, whose entry into Japan had twice been rejected by Tokyo. Abe had played a key role in those rejections.

The interpreter is considered an expert on Japan-related postwar compensation problems.

Abe advised that special attention should be paid to the interpreter’s behavior as a barometer of Kim’s true intentions, the sources said.

At first glance, Abe seems to be a political moderate. Below the surface, however, he is a hardliner preaching a conservative, conventional diplomatic philosophy that emphasizes Japan’s national interests.

“Abe has a belief that it is a political mission to protect the people’s lives and property,” an aide said.

Abe is a political blue-blood. His grandfather was Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who revised the Japan-U.S. security treaty in 1960, and his late father, Shintaro Abe, was a foreign minister.

The five known surviving Japanese abductees who were spirited away by North Korea in 1978 and are now back home were originally supposed to stay in Japan for up to two weeks after their Oct. 15 return.

Shortly after they arrived, however, the government decided they must remain in Japan and has since been demanding that Pyongyang let their offspring, along with the husband of one of the abductees, join their families in Japan.

This government maneuver followed Koizumi’s acceptance of Abe’s argument that the five, if forced to return to the North, would not be able to freely express their views on whether they wanted to return to Japan for good, the sources said.

The decision has angered North Korea, which says Japan has broken its promise by keeping the abductees here. U.S. government officials welcomed Abe’s judgment, however, stating that the victims should not be returned to their abductors.

The talks on normalizing diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea are strewn with various thorny problems apart from the issue of the abductees’ family members in North Korea, including North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the possibility that many other Japanese nationals have been abducted by the Stalinist state.

Pyongyang recently admitted having broken its pledge to abandon the latter, according to U.S. sources.

Analysts thus say the real test of Abe’s success as a politician in taking the initiative on North Korea lies ahead.

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