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Where others fear to tread

There is a peculiar paradox about Japan's sometimes mysterious but often effective prime minister that has not been sufficiently appreciated.

In his nearly five years in office, Junichiro Koizumi has made enough controversial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine to give China and South Korea ample ammunition with which to complain. This propaganda offensive has painted Mr Koizumi as something of a neo-militarist in some quarters. And the branding effort has hardly been retarded by his campaign to loosen the constitutional restrictions on Japan's military options and his government's pushy posture on territorial disputes with China, Russia and South Korea.

At the same time, there is another side of Mr Koizumi that does not receive sufficient attention. As tense as relations between China and Japan are, they are bad with North Korea, too. The Japanese public cannot accept Pyongyang's insufficient co-operation in locating Japanese citizens kidnapped by the North over the years for intelligence purposes. Nor are their nerves soothed by North Korean test missiles fired in Japan's direction - one as recently as February, another in 1998. Japanese do not trust the North Koreans any more than North Koreans trust them.

But the supposedly neo-militarist Mr Koizumi has not feared to wade into this poisonous bilateral atmosphere. Contrary to all expectations, he flew to Pyongyang in 2002, again in 2004 and is believed to be planning a third trip - one final fling of diplomacy with the North - some time this summer.

Mr Koizumi is due to step down in September. His last Diet session as prime minister ends around June 18, leaving him with just two months to tie up as many loose ends as possible.

Mr Koizumi, who has made his reputation on the basis of economic reform, domestic restructuring and support for the US-led war in Iraq, will not go down in history as a foreign-policy wizard.

Even so, his personal diplomatic efforts with North Korea are to be applauded. Hardline Japanese diplomacy towards its neighbours has outlived its usefulness. It hurts Japan's efforts to gain permanent membership of the UN Security Council and reminds everyone of the bad old days. And yet the two most likely successors to Mr Koizumi are hawks among hawks. They are Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, and Taro Aso, the foreign minister. They have both vowed to continue the war shrine visits, among other things.

But far away from the TV cameras and the grandstands, solid diplomacy has and will continue to proceed apace. Japan's quiet but effective vice-foreign minister, Shotaro Yachi, is even now seeking another round of ministerial talks with Beijing. He also hopes to hook up Mr Aso with the Chinese foreign minister at an Asia Co-operation Dialogue session in Qatar later this month.

Mr Koizumi still has one diplomatic spectacular to pull off. This would be a journey into the shadowy corridors of power at Liberal Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo. There, a new plan for Japan must be hatched.

Its main element would be to rule out succession by either Mr Abe or Mr Aso. Shrine visits by Japanese prime ministers need to be put on hold for the time being at least.

Mr Koizumi needs to hand-pick an interim prime minister to cool the international waters and permit a significant pause for a nationwide debate on the kind of foreign policy Japan needs most.

From the next leader, the country will need a new foreign-policy consensus as to where it is heading, just as Mr Koizumi was able to forge a new one on the domestic side.

Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network

Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre