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Remarks by Japanese leader raise stakes for meeting with Bush

WASHINGTON—Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's first Washington meeting with President Bush was supposed to be a low-key, getting-to-know-you affair designed to highlight the tight relationship between the United States and its Asian ally.

But the Bush-Abe sessions on Thursday and Friday will be a gathering of politically wounded leaders: a president severely weakened by the war in Iraq and a prime minister hurt by a series of missteps, including controversial remarks he made about "comfort women"—women forced into sexual servitude for the imperial military forces during World War II.

"It has put a poor spin on the trip," said Bruce Klinger, an Asia analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "Now Abe comes here trying to make sure the visit doesn't fail."

The two leaders plan to discuss the world economy, the war in Iraq and their tense relationships with North Korea, but an issue dating back six decades is likely to affect the atmosphere.

Abe, the first Japanese prime minister born after World War II, has struggled in office since succeeding popular Junichiro Koizumi last September. His approval ratings have plummeted from 70 percent to 40 percent, making him almost as unpopular in Japan as Bush is in the United States.

Abe further dented his popularity and re-opened old wounds in Asia when he said last month that there was "no evidence to prove" that the Japanese government had any role in coercing women to work as "comfort women" in wartime military brothels. His comments were in response to a resolution by Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., that calls on Japan to unequivocally acknowledge its role in gathering the women and apologize for their enslavement.

Some 200,000 girls and women were abused as "comfort women," according to Amnesty International, which is co-sponsoring a silent demonstration Thursday across the street from the White House on behalf of the women, many of whom are now in their 80s, and their survivors.

Abe apologized for his remarks and expressed sympathy for the "hardship" the women suffered and "the situation they found themselves in." But many in Asia found the apology unsatisfactory, saying that it seemed to undercut a 1993 apology on behalf of the Japanese government by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono.

Kono acknowledged that in many cases the women were taken against their will and that government personnel, at times, participated in "recruiting" them.

Amnesty International called both apologies insufficient and urged Bush to bring up the issue with Abe on Thursday in the White House or Friday at Camp David.

"The Japanese prime minister should say unequivocally he's sorry," said T. Kumar, the organization's advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific.

White House officials doubt that Bush will bring up the issue because he's already spoken to Abe about it. Abe explained his apology and position on "comfort women" in a 20-minute telephone call to Bush on April 3.

Dennis Wilder, the National Security Council's senior director for Asian affairs, said Abe has "done a lot to clear up the misunderstandings."

"I think the point the president makes is . . . that as you move forward, Japan as a modern, democratic nation needs to find a way to place these issues behind it so it can move forward in cooperation with its neighbors," Wilder said.

Bush and Abe are expected to discuss the North Korean nuclear situation during their talks. The Tokyo government was reportedly taken aback when the United States agreed to a six-nation deal for North Korea to shut down its nuclear activities in exchange for millions of dollars in energy and economic aid.

The deal has raised fears that the United States—anxious for a nuclear-free North Korea—might remove the regime from its list of state sponsors of terrorism before Japan resolves its dispute with Pyongyang over the abduction of 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and1980s. North Korea admitted to the abductions in 2002.

"We aren't going to de-link the abductee issue from the state sponsor of terrorism issue," Wilder said. "We fully expect that the bilateral working group between Japan and DPRK (North Korea) is going to have success in moving this issue forward."

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Emi Doi contributed from Tokyo.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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