The domestic obstacles standing the way of the US government holding up its end of the bargain are considerable, but this “agreement” could still cause trouble for Prime Minister Fukuda in the meantime.
The LDP’s conservatives, now for the most part embodied in the Nakagawa Shoichi’s “true” conservative study group, have spent the fourteen months since the US-DPRK Berlin agreement trying to ensure that the US does not remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list until the abductions issue is resolved. As I noted back in February, Mr. Nakagawa and comrades were quite pleased with the lack of progress in the six-party talks and open warfare in the Bush administration over North Korea policy.
Now a deal is once again on the table that envisions North Korea removed from the list despite Japan’s conditions not being met — in short, US abandonment of Japan on a fundamental issue for the conservatives. While they need not panic yet (their Washington allies will naturally do all they can to derail this latest attempt by Chris Hill to resolve the crisis), they will be watching Mr. Fukuda carefully in the coming weeks and months, ready to pounce on him if he deviates from the hard line on North Korea, which the prime minister embraced early in his term after suggesting that he might chart a new, more flexible course. At the same time, Washington — or the State Department, anyway — will likely be leaning on Tokyo to play a constructive role should the latest agreement go forward
Mr. Fukuda may be able to duck this pressure for the time being by claiming that his hands are tied thanks to the recently passed six-month extension of the economic sanctions originally implemented following North Korea’s October 2006 nuclear test. But if this latest agreement somehow proves a success, that may not be a satisfactory answer for the US government, at which point the prime minister would be forced to choose between alienating the US or alienating the LDP’s conservatives, one of whom is already measuring curtains for the Kantei. Provided Mr. Fukuda survives long enough to face that choice, will he buck the conservatives and follow the US? Or will he continue to hew to the Abe line of doing nothing until “progress” is made on the abductions issue, ensuring that Japan remains isolated within the six-party talks?
UPDATE: Gerald Curtis, Japanese politics specialist at Columbia University, visited North Korea last week and upon his return met with a nonpartisan Diet members study group to report that there is a “high probability” of Washington’s removing North Korea from the terror sponsors list within the year.