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Friday, Oct. 21, 2011

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Eclipsed: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak hold a joint news conference at the Blue House in Seoul on Wednesday. AP PHOTO

Noda facing tough diplomatic road


SEOUL — Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's summit Wednesday with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak reflected his vexation over Japan's lack of diplomatic achievements over the past few years.

While Lee has expanded his international presence since taking office in 2008, recent Japanese prime ministers, changing one after the other without exhibiting strong leadership, have failed to build a close personal relationship with any world leader.

Japan appears more than ever to be eager to work closely with South Korea, in part because the neighboring country has succeeded in improving on a good relationship with the United States.

Noda's two-day trip to Seoul took place a week after Lee visited Washington as a state guest, during which President Barack Obama said the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea is "stronger than it's ever been."

The U.S. Congress approved a South Korea-U.S. free-trade agreement just hours after Lee arrived in Washington.

Lee, who was warmly received at the White House, described the trade deal as the opening of "a new chapter" that will elevate their bilateral security alliance to "a whole new level."

Many Japanese officials fear Tokyo, amid the chronic political stalemate, has lagged behind South Korea in developing strategic diplomatic and economic policies.

For a long time, Japan has also wanted to arrange an official visit to Washington by a prime minister and develop a bilateral FTA with South Korea. But there are no clear prospects for achieving either of them.

The last time a Japanese prime minister held a formal meeting in Washington with Obama was in February 2009, while free-trade negotiations between Tokyo and Seoul have been suspended since November 2004.

A once-scheduled state visit by Lee to Japan has meanwhile remained up in the air.

In Wednesday's talks at the Blue House presidential office, Noda requested that Lee make an early visit to Japan and agreed with him that the two countries will accelerate necessary working-level consultations for the restart of official negotiations on an FTA.

But it is hard to say Noda achieved any concrete results or anything strikingly new from his previous meeting with Lee in late September in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session.

Noda, who on Sept. 2 became the country's sixth prime minister since the long-lasting Junichiro Koizumi bowed out in September 2006, chose South Korea as his first country for a bilateral meeting.

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba's first overseas destination for the purpose of holding bilateral talks earlier this month was also South Korea.

It is the first time both a prime minister and a foreign minister picked South Korea as their first country for one-on-one talks, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Although Japan and South Korea remain at odds over some historical and territorial issues, Japanese officials said the visits by Noda and his foreign minister illustrate how seriously he is taking his administration's ties with Seoul.

"In addition to basic values that we share, there are so many ways I was touched by his beliefs as a politician," Noda told reporters after the meeting.

"It was very fruitful to have developed a relationship of trust with him and I am certain that today we have taken the precious first step for strongly promoting future-oriented Japan-South Korean ties."

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