Sunday, July 6, 2008

Bush Defends North Korea Shift

President Bush arrived on the lush and mountainous northern Japanese island of Hokkaido on Sunday for a gathering of world leaders that is to focus on climate change, soaring oil and gas prices and aid to Africa. But first, he defended his decision to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism — a decision that has touched a raw nerve here because of the North’s abduction of Japanese citizens.

Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Bush spoke at a press conference with Japan’s prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda.

“The United States will not abandon you on this issue,” Mr. Bush told Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda during a press conference here. He added, “I am fully aware of the sensitivity of the issue here in your country. I am aware that people want to make sure that the abduction issue is not ignored.”

The fate of the abductees, who disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s as part of an apparent effort by the North to train Japanese-speaking spies, has created considerable tension between the United States and Japan in recent weeks, ever since Mr. Bush announced that he was taking North Korea — a country he once described as part of the “axis of evil” — off the State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism.

Mr. Bush made the move in exchange for the North’s long-delayed declaration of its nuclear program to the outside world. In defending his decision on Sunday, the president said he would demand that the North verify that it is indeed dismantling its nuclear program. But he said the first step toward verification had already been taken, when the North blew up the cooling tower of its nuclear plant at Yongbyon.

“North Korea is the most sanctioned nation in the world and will remain the most sanctioned nation in the world,” Mr. Bush said, adding, “Now one thing is for certain, the destruction of the cooling tower was verifiable action, and that’s a positive step.”

Mr. Fukuda, for his part, said he pressed Mr. Bush for a “simultaneous settlement” in which the North would verify its nuclear commitments and return the abductees all at once. And the prime minister also delivered a bit of news, announcing he will join Mr. Bush at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing next month, despite concerns from human rights advocates who have pressured leaders to shun the Olympics as a way of protesting China’s policies in Tibet and the Darfur region of Sudan.

“I don’t think you have to really link the Olympics with politics,” Mr. Fukuda said.

Mr. Bush also explained his decision to attend the opening ceremony, saying not to do so would be “an affront to the Chinese people, which may make it more difficult to speak frankly with the Chinese.”

Mr. Bush is here in Hokkaido for his last summit meeting as president with the leaders of industrialized nations, the so-called G8. The meeting marks the beginning of Mr. Bush’s exit from the world stage — he hopes to use it to press his fellow world leaders to live up to their past promises to increase aid to Africa, and to forge ahead on a path toward an international agreement on climate change. But experts say his job, notably on climate change, is complicated by the election back home.

“Everyone’s sort of waiting for the next U.S. president,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group based in Washington. Mr. Meyer is here in Hokkaido monitoring the climate change talks.

Like Mr. Meyer, Michael A. Levi, an energy expert at the Council of Foreign Relations, said he did not expect a major breakthrough on the climate change issue, in part because other countries are waiting to see what the next United States president will do. He said the Japanese, who are leading the effort, are trying to “really keep the road wide open while steering it in the right direction, so the new administration can come in and actively engage.”

As the host of this year’s gathering, Japan is making climate change a major issue. The country is casting itself as a model of energy efficiency — so much so that guests at the Rusutsu Resort, where the international press corps is staying, received a note from the resort’s chief executive officer informing them that his company has “acquired CO2 emission rights” and has planted more than 100,000 eucalyptus trees in Queensland, Australia, to demonstrate its commitment to combating global warming.

Mr. Fukuda has said he would like to conclude the meeting with an agreement from the countries to adopt numerical targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But Mr. Bush has long resisted a mandatory worldwide goal, and has insisted that he would not sign onto such an agreement unless developing nations — notably India and China — sign on as well.

Just before leaving for last year’s Group of 8 meeting in Heiligendamm, Germany, Mr. Bush proposed his own solution to the climate change problem: a series of meetings among high-polluting nations — the co-called “major emitters” — with the aim of reaching agreement on a long-term global goal for reducing emissions by the end of 2008. A “major emitters meeting” will be held Wednesday here in Hokkaido, and the big question here is what will come of that meeting.

At Sunday’s press conference, Mr. Fukuda was asked if he believed the United States was an obstacle to a climate change agreement. The Japanese prime minister ducked the question. “I think our views are gradually converging,” he said, adding, “I’ve asked the president for his cooperation and he has shown his kind understanding. What the results will be, well, we have to wait until the conclusion.”

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