Japanese prime minister’s resignation not just business as usual

Friday, September 5, 2008 | 4:46 p.m. CDT

Stuart Loory: While the drama of the presidential conventions plays out here in the United States, governments are in crisis in the Far East. Japan's Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda resigned Monday after less than a year on the job. His predecessor resigned similarly last year. In Bangkok, Thailand, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has been locked out of his office for days by protesters who have occupied it. The police and army refuse his state of emergency declaration and his orders to control the protesters. In South Korea, the government is under attack for several reasons, one of them being the fear that continued importation of American beef raises the danger for mad cow disease. Bring us up-to-date on the political crisis in Japan and what is being done to solve it.

Shiro Yoneyama, associate editor world services, Kyodo News Agency, Tokyo: Fukada decided to resign because he lost public support as well as support from the ruling party. He failed to demonstrate leadership in foreign and domestic affairs.

Leo Lewis, Asia business correspondent, Times of London, Tokyo: I was just adding up in my head the number of prime ministers to Japan there have been since I first came out here in 1990. The answer is 11. There is a temptation to see this sudden changing of power as business as usual in Japan. Everything I am hearing suggests that is not the case this time. We really are seeing the stirrings of something that is going to shake Japanese politics up and possibly change (its) shape altogether.

Loory: What kind of changes?

Lewis: The one being discussed most now is that you're going to see a split in Japan, not between the traditional lines of the ruling LDP party and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Instead, what will happen is the pro-reform people will split and create one party, and a sort of old guard conservative side of Japanese politics will form the remainder, and those two will battle it out. We haven't seen any evidence of that split just yet, but that chat is going in the political center of Tokyo.

Loory: Tell us about what is going on in Korea.

Ahn Chak Hee, chief anchor and manager, Arirang TV News, Seoul, South Korea: We've had massive protests by people who are against the government's decision to resume imports of U.S. beef. The Olympics helped to take the sting off of the issue. At the moment, no major anti-beef protests here, but it is simmering. Lawmakers in the National Assembly are opening their first plenary session. They want to bring in new regulation, stiffer monitoring and scrutiny procedures to make sure nothing close to mad cow enters the country. We're not seeing any of the major protests taking over the downtown area at the moment, but it is simmering.

Loory: What is going on in Bangkok and how might this be resolved?

Willis Witter, foreign editor, Washington Times, Washington, D.C.: A very close ally of the king resigned (last week). He was the foreign minister. When you get into Thai politics, one has to impute from subtle signals. This is interpreted by some to be a subtle signal that the king, who is very revered, is unhappy with the prime minister. It is perhaps a nudge out the door, although I wouldn't go any further than that. Frankly, I think Korea, Japan and the U.S. are more interesting.

Loory: On the other hand, the situation in Bangkok is strange. Protesters have taken over the prime minister's office and locked him out. Some of the stories that I have read say part of the reason is the protesters feel there is too much democracy in Thailand.

Lewis: That is the central irony of these protests. They are nominally in the name of the People's Alliance of Democracy, but these are middle-class Bangkok residents who are behind this. They may have attracted some wider appeal, but despite its name, the thinking side of these protests are not terribly pro-democracy. You have to remember Thaksin was voted in legitimately, as was Samak. These are protests from people who largely don't want to be ruled by what they think of as the mob. What they mean is people outside the capital, in the countryside. They think their sort of rich middle-class votes are probably worth a bit more. I think that is the central conflict here.

Loory: You say Thaksin was legitimately voted in, but then there were corruption charges brought against him, and he has fled the country to avoid prosecution. The present prime minister, Samak, is a supporter of Thaksin, is that not correct?

Lewis: All of that is correct. I was commenting on the popular appeal of both of those leaders. We are looking at a scenario where voters went for those guys in very large numbers. It is something not to simply suppress or ignore when considering the conflict in Bangkok.

Loory: What about the king of Thailand? Does he have any political power? Can he influence what is going on there?

Don Kirk, Korea correspondent, Christian Science Monitor, Washington, D.C.: He is a sacrosanct figure; he does have a terrific amount, not just of respect, but loyalty and admiration. He is widely viewed as a figure who rises above politics, somehow having a calming effect in the end. He certainly can exercise an overall influence; how this influence plays out is not clear.

Ahn: The too-much-democracy discussion parallels what some in Korea have said. President Lee is saying you cannot set fire to the downtown area and say this is democracy. He says no more of this rampant democracy. This is a contentious issue. Other people are saying after 10 years of working to build up democracy and free speech aren't we going backward on democracy? It is gaining in strength because people are saying we don't want our civil liberties to be taken away from us.

Kirk: The traditional thinking in Seoul is the issues were beyond mad cow disease. It provided the pretext for lots of gripes. The major point was the people who were behind these demonstrations found themselves out in the cold after the presidential election and the National Assembly elections.

Loory: How might the relationship between South Korea and Japan be impacted by government changes?

Ahn: There is a lot of anticipation about Taro Aso being in power in Japan. China is not very happy with what Aso represents. Here in Seoul, they are thinking a new reign might have more tension between Korea and Japan. Right now, relations are not very good.

Yoneyama: I have been told that China has high expectations on the Aso leadership, so probably there will be no substantial change in Japanese diplomacy at the moment.

Loory: What about North Korea?

Lewis: The conversation essentially runs three ways between China, North Korea and the U.S.; the South Korean and the Japanese roles are secondary.

Loory: The North Koreans want the Bush administration to take it off the terror list. The Bush administration doesn't think North Korea has abandoned its plans to deactivate its reactor?

Witter: The hang up on this side of the ocean is that North Korea is supposed to agree to "verification measures that satisfy the Bush administration." Until they do, North Korea remains on the terrorism list.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Chris Hamby, Sananda Sahoo and Hui Wang. Pat Kelley does the transcription.



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