The right laying low?

Since former prime minister Mori and Prime Minister Fukuda called attention to the crisis facing the LDP on consecutive days in mid-January — with Mr. Mori explicitly criticizing Nakagawa Shoichi’s flirtations with Hiranuma Takeo — it seems that the ideological conservatives have backed out of the spotlight.

Part of the reason, I think, is because of the changing environment in the Six-Party talks. With North Korea recalcitrant since the start of the year, and the Bush administration seemingly in no hurry (or powerless) to restart the talks, the bilateral tension over North Korea has dissipated somewhat. With a lower risk of Washington’s removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and pressuring Tokyo to follow along, the conservatives don’t need to lean as hard on Mr. Fukuda to keep toeing the line on the abductions issue.

There is no doubt that Mr. Nakagawa is feeling confident regarding developments in North Korea policy. In a three-way discussion with Tahara Soichiro and Tanaka Hitoshi in the February issue of Chuo Koron (part one, part two), Mr. Nakagawa said, “Concerning the result, even Assistant Secretary Hill said last year while visiting North Korea, ‘North Korea’s level of verification is not good,’ and as a result the agreement is delayed. I think that factors in President Bush’s decision include statements of opposition to lifting the designation in both the House and the Senate in Congress, as well as the function of trends in Japanese public opinion. Lifting the designation in the face of this opposition would be too risky.”

The Japanese right is probably thrilled at the fight over US North Korea policy growing after State Department criticism of a speech by congressionally mandated North Korea Human Rights envoy Jay Lefkowitz at the American Enterprise Institute — discussed in this Christopher Hitchens essay, in which he sides with Mr. Lefkowitz and dismisses the separation of human rights from denuclearization. After all, the greater the dissent in Washington, the less likely the administration will assume the risks of pushing harder for progress in talks with North Korea. The less the US pushes, the less the Fukuda government has to fret about gaps between the Japanese and US bargaining positions.

The other factor contributing to less conservative activism against Mr. Fukuda is, I think, good tactical sense on the part of Mr. Nakagawa and his comrades. After being criticized by party leaders last month and with diminishing chances of a general election being called before the autumn, I suspect that the “true” conservatives reasoned that unless they are prepared to take the ultimate step in undermining the government, joining with the opposition to pass an HR non-confidence motion, they are better off being loyal to the party and preparing for the fight for control of the party that will follow a general election. (For the record, I don’t think that Mr. Nakagawa and his fellow conservatives are prepared to do anything so forthright as working with the opposition to bring down Mr. Fukuda.) The current environment on North Korea policy makes it easier to swallow their pride and support the prime minister.

Barring any radical changes in the policy environment, the stalemate will hold, with the conservatives plotting their restoration sub rosa.

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