- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

President Barack Obama chose Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso to be the first foreign leader to visit him in the Oval Office (one of the earliest meetings of a new U.S. president with any country except a neighbor or Great Britain) to highlight Japan‘s importance as an ally and its role in fixing the global credit crisis as the world’s second largest economy. While the two heads of state indicated that the substance of their discussion would be about the global economy, equally important was discussion of the strategy in dealing with North Korea‘s increasingly aggressive actions and its nuclear program.

“They pledged to work closely through the Six-Party process to verifiably eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program and to deal with the problem of North Korea’s missiles,” was as specific as the White House got regarding the discussions. The Japanese government was very anxious that Mr. Obama would meet with Japan first, as Mr. Aso is considered a lame-duck president, with an election likely to be forthcoming. That makes his early visit all the more revealing regarding whom the U.S. intends to partner with in dealing with Pyongyang.

Hopefully, by meeting with Japan now, the Obama administration is indicating it is stiffening its spine on negotiations with the rogue North, which recently announced that it would continue testing long-range missiles and suspended peace-reconciliation talks with South Korea, while continuing to make threats against its neighbors. The Japanese were very concerned about U.S. concessions to Pyongyang in the recent Six-Party talks. Japan contends Pyongyang still holds more than the 13 Japanese citizens North Korea admitted to kidnapping in the 1970s and 1980s. The Stalinist regime has refused to return them, or the bodies of those deceased, to Japan.

Last fall, in the weeks leading up to an agreement date with the Bush administration that proved ephemeral, North Korea kicked out international weapons inspectors, declared its intention to reopen its Yongbyon nuclear facility, and conducted several missile tests. One can count on the North Koreans to act badly.

During her recent Asia trip, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the strongest rebuke to North Korea and made clear for the first time that understanding the succession of the government from Kim Jong-Il (who reportedly had a stroke last year and has not been seen publicly since) to one of his sons or someone else was a key component to any new negotiations.

This is all a good sign that the U.S. will not play any more of Pyongyang’s games. But we hope that when the Obama administration says, “The President underscored his firm commitment to the U.S.-Japan Alliance and called for continued progress in modernizing the Alliance by implementing the joint realignment initiative,” they mean Mr. Obama has come to understand that missile defense systems are necessary in taming North Korea and that Japan will be a willing partner.

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