Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s decision Monday to call a general election may end up stalling Japan’s diplomatic agenda, including talks on realigning the U.S. forces in Japan.

Whether Koizumi visits Tokyo’s war-related Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15 is also attracting attention in the diplomatic arena, since he is more likely to take the plunge now that his grip on power is at stake, pundits say. A visit on the 60th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender would further damage ties with China and South Korea.

Diplomats also worry the election may create a political and administrative vacuum at a time when crucial decisions are needed.

“The prime minister’s mind is fully occupied by the political turmoil,” a senior Foreign Ministry official complained.

Koizumi planned to attend a special Sept. 14-16 U.N. General Assembly summit in New York and make an official visit to Washington in late September for a summit with U.S. President George W. Bush.

Tokyo and Washington are aiming to reach an interim accord on specific relocation plans for U.S. forces in Japan during a meeting of foreign affairs and defense chiefs in September that is expected to stir controversy in Japan.

Koizumi, if he believes he will win the election and stay in power, may still be planning to visit the United States twice that month, according to a close aide.

The contentious realignment issue will be high on the agenda if Koizumi meets with Bush, along with the extension of the Self-Defense Forces missions to help rebuild Iraq and provide logistic support to the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Tokyo needs to start the delicate task of persuading local governments opposed to hosting new military installations into devising specific relocation plans that would be announced in September at the so-called two-plus-two meeting of the two nations’ foreign affairs and defense chiefs.

Tokyo’s attempt to land a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council by September hit a snag last week as the 53-member African Union refused to pursue a joint proposal with Brazil, Germany, India and Japan — the so-called Group of Four — to expand the UNSC.

A leadership void may also mar Tokyo’s efforts to resolve North Korea’s abductions of Japanese and other issues with Pyongyang that were broached by Koizumi’s unprecedented visits there in September 2002 and May 2004.

After resuming on July 26, the six-nation talks in Beijing aimed at persuading North Korea to drop its nuclear ambitions ended in an impasse Sunday, with the six parties agreeing to take a three-week recess. Japan’s delegates held bilateral talks only once with the North Koreans during the 13-day round.

Yasukuni issue?

Staff report

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Monday he does not intend to make his contentious visits to Yasukuni Shrine a focal issue in the Sept. 11 election but remained mum on whether he will go there Aug. 15, the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.

“I don’t intend to make it an election focus,” Koizumi told an evening news conference after dissolving the House of Representatives. “I (just) go there to pay respects and gratitude” for the war dead.

But he did not directly respond to questions over whether he will make a visit on Aug. 15.

Diplomatic pundits both at home and abroad are carefully watching when he will make his annual pilgrimage to the contentious shrine, which honors 14 Class-A war criminals among the nation’s war dead.

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