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Koizumi, the President, and the King

Prepared by: Esther Pan
Updated: June 30, 2006

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Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi makes his final state visit to the United States before stepping down in September after six years in office. The visit comes amid the recent threat by North Korea to launch a long-range ballistic missile that could potentially deliver a nuclear warhead. Pyongyang's move brought stern warnings from Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul. Graham Allison tells CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman that U.S. policy toward North Korea—including ongoing six-party talks that include Japan—has been an "abject failure" at preventing Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons. Steven Bosworth, dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts, tells a CFR meeting that North Korea seeks nuclear weapons as "the ultimate deterrent." Some commentators say the missile launch threat is strengthening Japan's right wing, which favors a stronger military and has grown powerful under Koizumi (CSMonitor). But amid the furor over the missile threat, Senator John Warner (R-VA), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says a North Korean missile launch may not be imminent (NYT).

Koizumi's visit with President Bush in Washington and their joint trip to Graceland—home of Koizumi's favorite crooner, Elvis—offers the two men plenty of time to consider Koizumi's legacy even as new security challenges loom in Asia. The Los Angeles Times calls the visit a kind of "victory lap" for a leader who has steered his country into a position of strong support for Washington, and the New York Times says the personal tour is typical of Bush's diplomatic style, which rewards allies with presidential perks. The chemistry between the two leaders has produced results: CFR fellow Elizabeth Economy tells Bernard Gwertzman in this interview that the U.S.-Japan relationship is the strongest of America's ties in Asia.

In 2005, the United States and Japan announced a sweeping security agreement that strengthens military cooperation in the region while reducing the number of U.S. soldiers stationed on Japanese soil. Under Koizumi, Japan sent troops overseas—to support U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan—for the first time since World War II, part of a new, unabashed military muscularity that is welcomed by many Japanese but regarded with wariness by the island's regional neighbors, particularly South Korea and China. This Backgrounder details Japan's efforts to reform its military, which come as the military threat from North Korea seems more immediate than ever.

But North Korea is not the only flashpoint in the region. Relations between Tokyo and China, as well as Tokyo and South Korea, have been growing steadily worse. The tensions are caused by nagging territorial disputes as well as Koizumi's insistence on continuing to visit the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan's war dead but also contains the remains of Japanese war criminals. Chinese and South Korean observers see the visits as provocative displays of Japan's unrepentant militarism, but journalist Richard Halloran writes that most Japanese consider the shrine as a symbol of their culture, and view efforts to prevent Koizumi's visits as foreign pressure that should be resisted.

Japan faces its own changes when Koizumi leaves office in September. CFR fellow Edward Lincoln says in this interview that the process of reforming Japan's economy may slow after Koizumi's departure, but will not stop. This Congressional Research Service report (PDF) says Koizumi's successor could have an unusually large impact on U.S.-Japan relations.

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