U.S. notifies Tokyo of plan to delist North

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Washington has notified Tokyo of its plan to start the process Thursday of striking North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism if Pyongyang files a declaration of its nuclear activities, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said Tuesday.

The planned U.S. move may push the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda into a tight corner, possibly forcing the government to face the tough political choice of either dropping its hardline demand for Pyongyang to make progress on the abduction dispute or straining the U.S. alliance by hampering the six-party talks to denuclearize North Korea.

Fukuda said later Tuesday that Japan would welcome the delisting if it helps resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.

“If the nuclear problem will be resolved, isn’t that something desirable, also for our country? . . . It’s something we should welcome,” Fukuda told reporters when asked whether he would urge President George W. Bush not to remove North Korea from the list.

Officials in Tokyo meanwhile stressed there would still be a moratorium of 45 days, and the U.S. decision could be rescinded during that period if the North’s declaration is not sufficient to ensure complete denuclearization as agreed to in the six-party talks.

And according to the latest report, Pyongyang only plans to divulge information about its nuclear facilities and materials, and nothing about its atomic weapons.

To remove a country from the terrorist-sponsor list, the White House must give Congress 45 days advance notice.

“Yes, we have been notified through (diplomatic channels) at various levels,” Komura told a news conference. “But there would still be 45 days before Congress can approve (the delisting).”

Komura’s comments came one day after U.S. officials said they expect Pyongyang to submit the declaration Thursday and that Washington is ready to immediately notify Congress of its intention to respond to the overture by delisting the North.

The U.S. has been using the terrorist-sponsor designation as leverage in negotiations to denuclearize the North, while Japan has asked the U.S. not to delist Pyongyang until it makes substantial progress on the abduction problem.

Japanese officials said Tokyo will concentrate on pressuring the North to resolve the abduction matter during the 45-day period because it appears Pyongyang is eager to be delisted by the U.S. and thereby save the reclusive state from financial isolation from the rest of the world.

“This summer will be a very hot summer” for Japanese diplomats, a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

The abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s is an emotional topic for Japan, and if the government backs off on the matter it would be a blow to Fukuda’s Cabinet.

Although a nuclear-armed North Korea poses a serious security threat to Japan, the public appears more immediately focused on pushing the government to resolve the abductions.

“Both the nuclear arms and abduction issues are very important for Japan. We need a balanced approach,” the senior Foreign Ministry official said.

But such an approach will require Tokyo to walk a very narrow path.

Komura is scheduled to meet Friday with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Kyoto to discuss bilateral issues. He said he will ask her for continued cooperation to resolve the abduction issue.

For her part, Rice said the U.S. will keep pressuring Pyongyang to resolve the abduction issue while being aware of the feelings in Japan.

“We recognize the sensitivity of this issue. It is a deep humanitarian issue,” Rice said on board an airplane en route to Germany. “The Japanese people can be assured that it is an issue of extreme importance for the United States and we’re going to continue to press on this issue,” she was quoted as saying by the U.S. Department of State Web site.

Senior Foreign Ministry officials meanwhile reiterated Tuesday that Tokyo will continue to withhold energy assistance to the North unless major progress is made in the issue.

Other participants in the six-party talks want Japan to shoulder the financial burden of providing Pyongyang with aid in return for progress in the denuclearization quest.

Some experts warned that the delisting would run the risk of chilling America’s relations with Japan.

“If the Bush administration delists North Korea, it’s going to widen the already existing disconnect between Japan’s interests in the region and those of the U.S.,” said Northeast Asia security expert Michael Heazle of the Griffith Asia Institute in Brisbane, Australia. “Delisting will highlight the limits of the U.S.-Japan alliance, in terms of the political support the Japanese can expect from Washington on regional issues, and give further credence to the push for Japan to become more independent from the U.S.”

Brad Glosserman, the executive director of the Pacific Forum for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu, said, “The key question now is how the U.S. assuages Tokyo’s anger, disappointment and sense of betrayal.

“The truth is the difficulties result from many factors: the Bush administration’s desire for a deal, Japan’s maladroit diplomacy, poor lines of communication between the U.S. and Japan, between the State Department and Japan’s Foreign Ministry, and even within the Japanese foreign policy establishment, and (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher) Hill’s negotiating style. There is plenty of blame to go around,” Glosserman said.