Sun, Oct 08, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Abe launches important regional trip

SHADOWS LOOMING While the Japanese prime minister intended to mend fences with Japan's neighbors, North Korea's nuclear tinkering risked changing the agenda

AFP , TOKYO

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is beginning a landmark fence-mending trip to China and South Korea, but it could be overshadowed by the crisis over North Korea's threatened atom bomb test.

Abe, long seen as a hardliner towards Asian neighbors, flies today to Beijing for the first visit by a Japanese prime minister in five years. It is his first foreign trip since he became prime minister on Sept. 26.

He will hold talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) before heading to South Korea tomorrow to meet South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

The region's security is likely be high on the talks' agenda after the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a statement on Friday which expressed "deep concern" over the North's planned test but made no explicit threat of sanctions.

"Not only Japan but also the international community will take severe action to North Korea" if the secretive communist state goes ahead with the test, Abe told reporters.

"Together with the international community, Japan will send a message to make North Korea understand that things will get worse if it fails to respond to the international community's concerns," he said.

Abe had earlier said that he would try to find common ground with his counterparts from China and South Korea during his two-day trip.

The two neighbors have so far preferred to take a softer approach towards the North.

"It's important to share the same understanding of the situation between Japan and China, and also between Japan and South Korea, during the summits," Abe said.

Abe, known as a hardliner on North Korea, is likely to call on the leaders of China -- one of Pyongyang's few allies -- to play a major role in persuading North Korea to drop its nuclear ambitions, analysts said.

For Japan, Abe's trip is also seen as an opportunity to mend ties soured by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi's visits to a controversial Tokyo war shrine.

Beijing had refused to invite Koizumi largely because of his visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors war criminals and war dead and is seen as symbolizing Japan's wartime aggression.

Abe, known for his nationalist views, has visited the shrine in the past.

"We have agreed [with China] to hold a meeting on condition that we will hold heart-to-heart talks about our future," Abe said on Friday.

The new prime minister has come under intense pressure from business leaders to repair relations with the rapidly growing China, Japan's top trading partner.

During planned talks with Hu, Abe is expected to seek to build bilateral ties, invite Hu or Premier Wen to Japan and hold another summit with Hu on the sidelines of next month's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Hanoi, Jiji Press said.

Abe on Friday risked new controversy, saying that top Japanese World War II leaders convicted by a US-led tribunal were not "war criminals."

"The people who are said to be so-called Class-A criminals were tried and convicted as war criminals at the Tokyo tribunal, but they were not war criminals under domestic laws," Abe said.

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