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Thursday, Oct. 5, 2006

North threat on agenda of Abe's Beijing, Seoul summits


Staff writer

On the heels of Pyongyang's threatened nuclear test, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet Chinese President Hu Jintao on Sunday in Beijing and South Korean President Ro Moo Hyun the following day in Seoul, breaking a nearly yearlong freeze on summits and putting the North squarely on the agenda.

China and South Korea had refused to hold summits with Japan since November to protest the visits by Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

The meetings follow North Korea's announcement Tuesday that it plans to conduct a nuclear test sometime in the future.

The Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang's announcement will be high on the agenda at both of the summits, as will Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan's 2.47 million war dead as well as Class-A war criminals.

Abe also plans to meet with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in Beijing, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hakubun Shimomura told a news conference at the prime minister's office.

"China and South Korea are very important neighbors for our country," Shimomura said. The meetings "will strengthen future relations with the two countries, and (the meetings) will be extremely meaningful for both the Asian region and the international community."

Beijing and Seoul approached Abe to mend their ties with Japan even before he was elected prime minister on Sept. 26.

Abe also made overtures to Beijing and Seoul before taking office, hoping to score political points as soon as he took office and make a strong start with his government.

One of Abe's most vulnerable spots is considered to be the damaged relations with China and South Korea as he took hardline diplomatic positions before he was elected prime minister.

One possible problem for Abe is Yasukuni Shrine and whether he will make a visit as prime minister. Abe, a strong supporter of Koizumi's annual visits to the contentious shrine, has said he won't speak publicly about whether he plans to visit, or even if he has visited, the shrine, despite Beijing's demand that he state his position clearly.

Foreign Ministry officials said Beijing recently became willing to arrange a summit despite knowing Abe won't reveal his position on Yasukuni.

"I think (China and South Korea) think the situation will only be difficult if they miss this chance," one Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

Abe's ambiguity is considered to be an attempt to avoid open diplomatic friction with China and South Korea while trying to appease segments of the public and members in his own party that want to see him go to the shrine.

"We have already conveyed (Abe's) position (on Yasukuni) to China. We don't know how they have interpreted it, but they still have said that (the leaders) should meet," said another senior Foreign Ministry official Monday.

Professor Ryosei Kokubun, a China expert at Keio University, said that Hu's motivation to reconcile with Japan is more for internal political reasons rather than diplomatic one.

"I think this is a domestic issue for China," said Kokubun, pointing out that the 6th plenary session of the Communist Party's 16th Central Committee starts Sunday, the day Abe meets Hu.

A meeting with Abe will help Hu strengthen his image of having full control over the government, since the soured relations with Japan have been the biggest diplomatic issue for Beijing. The "Shanghai Faction," led by former President Jiang Zemin, who is in a power struggle with Hu, has meanwhile been critical of Beijing's attempts to mend ties with Tokyo, Kokubun said.

Hu's government recently fired Chen Liangyu, the Communist Party secretary for Shanghai and a key member of the Jiang's faction, for alleged misuse of pension funds. Firing Chen is believed to have been part of the power struggle and an attempt by Hu to consolidate his power ahead of the central committee's plenary session.



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