An unscripted summit?

Mere days before President Bush and Prime Minister Fukuda are scheduled to meet in Washington, a State Department spokesman has announced that the US will not give concrete consideration to the abductions issue when it comes to removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Now, I don’t disagree with this policy — the US shouldn’t let what it is a bilateral issue between Japan and North Korea interfere with what the US government feels is in its best interests. There seems to be little chance that progress towards delisting North Korea will stop, especially considering that the Israel-Syria-North Korea mystery seems to have vanished from the media space. Even John Bolton, of late the Bush administration’s most vociferous critic from the right, admitted to a delegation of abductee advocates in Washington, “I agree with you completely, but the flow towards delisting will be extremely difficult to stop.”

The problem with this announcement is the timing. Mr. Fukuda has in recent days and weeks suggested that the Japanese government might be prepared to re-engage in the six-party talks, despite its reservations (which in a sign of progress increasingly concern the problem of verifying denuclearization as well as the abductions issue). For a State Department spokesman to deliver this message prior to the prime minister’s arrival in Washington strikes me as indicative of a gratuitous disregard of the difficult position that Mr. Fukuda faces in trying to shift Japan’s bargaining position in the six-party talks. Style matters as much as substance; the US should be trying to coax Japan back to the table, not bludgeon it over the head until it concedes.

Of course, the gap between the US and Japanese bargaining positions may be unbridgeable, meaning that it is high time for the allies to discuss the implications of being unable to coordinate policy on the North Korea question.

In any case, that an announcement like this can be made this close to a major summit suggests that there may be a surprise or two in store this Friday. For once there might be a US-Japan summit that is more than a photo-op and a joint press conference that enables the two leaders to exchange sweet nothings about the alliance.

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