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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Dick Cheney in Japan to Discuss North Korea, Iraq

TOKYO -- Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Japan on Tuesday on a visit to reassure America's close ally that a troop build-up will help quell violence in Iraq, just weeks after Japan's defense minister said starting the war was a mistake.

North Korea will also be on the agenda after a six-party energy-for-arms deal aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear arms programs was forged in Beijing this month.

Japan has said it will not provide economic aid to fund the deal until progress is made on resolving a feud over Japanese citizens kidnapped by the North's agents decades ago.

A U.S. official in Washington said earlier that Cheney would back the Japanese position.

"You can be sure that things like missiles in North Korea and abductees are going to need to be addressed. And I think that the vice president will tell the Japanese that the United States is very supportive of that agenda."

In a sign of the importance Japan attaches to the issue, Cheney will meet the parents of one of the abductees early Thursday morning before he leaves, the Japanese foreign ministry said, in a last-minute addition to his schedule.

More than 80 percent of respondents to an opinion poll published by the Asahi newspaper on Tuesday backed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's stern stance toward Pyongyang.

But 57 percent agreed with the view expressed by Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma last month, when he said that President Bush had been wrong to start the Iraq war.

Cheney will meet Abe to brief him on the White House's decision to add 21,500 U.S. troops in Iraq.

He then travels to Australia to meet Bush's other strong ally in the region, Prime Minister John Howard.

The U.S. official declined to say whether Cheney would make specific requests for troops or other kinds of aid for Iraq.

Cheney is not scheduled to meet Kyuma during his visit, but the defense minister shrugged off any talk of a snub.

"Even in the past, defense ministers didn't meet vice presidents because their rank differs," Kyuma told reporters.

Cheney last visited Japan in 2004 and did not meet the then defense minister.

Cheney will, however, meet Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso, who earlier this month was quoted by media as criticizing U.S. policy in Iraq, calling its occupation strategy "immature".

The U.S. official said relations between the United States and Japan could hardly be stronger, adding that their military ties had grown in the six years of the Bush administration.

"And it corresponds with Japan's own rising sense of leadership and confidence internationally, reflected in these unprecedented deployments of Japanese troops to Iraq," he said.

Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, sent about 550 non-combat troops to southern Iraq in 2004 as part of Tokyo's largest and riskiest overseas mission since World War Two.

The soldiers returned home last July, but about 200 Japanese air force personnel based in Kuwait are still transporting supplies to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

Their legal mandate expires in July, but domestic media have said the government plans to extend the mission.


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