On Obama’s Asia visit, information is unclear

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On Obama’s Asia visit, information is unclear

U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to fly to Asia in April and is considering a state visit to Japan. However, according to a diplomatic source, instead of a three-day stay there, as requested by the Japanese government, he may spend only one day in Tokyo and then head to Seoul.

“The U.S. believes that if it follows through with a state visit to Japan, as requested by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - who went through with visiting the Yasukuni Shrine at the end of last year - it might send the wrong message to the international community [and make it appear as if] the United States is supporting Japan,” a senior source in Japan told the JoongAng Ilbo recently.

Abe’s surprise visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which houses the war dead, resulted in a backlash from Washington, Seoul and Beijing.

Washington reportedly relayed its intention to pay a one-day visit to Japan and then go to Korea. If Obama goes to Seoul in April, the source said, “There is a high likelihood that it will be scaled down to an ‘official working visit.’”

On Friday, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida is scheduled to head to Washington, where he is expected to work on securing a state visit to Japan, as originally requested.

“In this instance, where the Japanese government is driven into a diplomatic corner as a result of Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, it stands to reason that being pushed to the side here means ‘this is the end,’ and [Japan] is prepared to wage a diplomatic battle until President Obama’s Asia trip is finalized,” the senior source said.

Susan Rice, the U.S. national security adviser, indicated in a speech last November that a trip to Asia by the president was in the works for April.

She did not specify what countries the president would visit. In October, Obama was scheduled to visit the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, though those plans were canceled because of the federal government shutdown.

Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, told reporters Saturday that while no announcements have been made regarding Obama’s Asia trip, “I will say, though, that the president is committed to going to Japan as a general matter.”

Obama is also expected to visit the Philippines and Malaysia.

“There are talks to exclude both Japan and Korea this time around and see if there’s a chance in the second half of the year, or make one-day working visits [to each country],” said a U.S. government official, who requested anonymity.

Richard L. Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state, and Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote on Friday in The Washington Post that stopping in Tokyo and Manila while “skipping another key ally, South Korea, on Obama’s first trip to Asia of his second term would be an embarrassment for South Korean President Park Geun-hye, particularly given how prickly relations are between Tokyo and Seoul.”

It would also send the wrong message to North Korea.

A source in Korea pointed out that U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. visited Korea, China and Japan last December, effectively covering the Northeast Asia region. President Obama, meanwhile, missed the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Indonesia and the East Asia Summit in Brunei last October, which would make the focus on Southeast Asia this time around more likely.

“But because Japan is being included in the countries to visit, it’s a situation in which Korea cannot be excluded,” the source added.

Kerry is expected to visit Seoul later this month after a trip to Beijing.

BY LEE HYUN-KI, SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]
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