Ambassador Schieffer has, according to the Washington Post, sent a cable directly to the president (an unusual step) warning Mr. Bush of serious consequences to the US-Japan alliance should the US remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list without progress being made on the abductions issue. The ambassador also complained about being cut out of the six-party talks.
I hate to say I told you so, but I've been arguing for months that Chris Hill's Berlin agreement presented a serious problem for the US-Japan relationship, because while the US was determined to continue negotiations in good faith, Japan — first under Mr. Abe, now, apparently, under Mr. Fukuda — was unwilling to talk about anything but the unresolved abductions issue and essentially opted out of the negotiations. (Try this post from February, this post from March, this post from May, this post from July, this post from September, and this post from earlier this month.) This gap has grown as the negotiations with Pyongyang have matured, and now that there is a real chance of the US making a real concession to North Korea as a reward for progress on denuclearization, alliance managers in both countries are panicking.
Both governments must bear the blame, having missed opportunity after opportunity to discuss this gap and find a way to realign the US and Japanese positions.
Consider that since the February agreement, Vice President Cheney visited Tokyo, Prime Minister Abe visited Washington for a summit with President Bush, the US and Japan held a 2 + 2 ministerial on security, and Messrs. Bush and Abe met on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Germany and the APEC summit in Sydney. At the ministerial and sub-ministerial levels, Japanese officials have made frequent visits to the US, and US officials have been in Japan.
At each of these occasions, the allies could have had a frank and open discussion about the differences between the US and Japanese bargaining positions. (In Cheney's defense, he tried in February.) If Japan was unprepared to broach the issue itself, then the US government should have forced the issue months ago, and the man to do that should have been Ambassador Schieffer. It's too late in the game for the ambassador to complain about the consequences of the US bargaining position in the six-party talks. He should have seen this coming and worked with Japanese officials to try to close the gap or at least explain — loudly, clearly, and unambiguously — to Japan why the US is prepared to move forward. Part of the problem seems to be that Chris Hill is essentially on his own, meaning that the US bargaining position is more of a Rice-Hill bargaining position.
At the same time, I have no sympathy for the Government of Japan. It had months to anticipate this development, but chose to do nothing. Of course, the problem is that with Mr. Abe and the conservatives in charge, the GOJ lacked the flexibility to alter its position in tune with the US. What MOFA bureaucrat would stand up to Mr. Abe, when doing so ran the risk of being treated as a "traitor" by the conservatives, much like Tanaka Hitoshi, former deputy minister for foreign affairs. Perhaps Japan's conservatives wanted a crisis to happen, as an excuse for Japan to pursue a more independent course. For them, perhaps it's a win-win situation. If the US chooses an agreement over the alliance, they have an excuse to clamor for a more assertive, independent foreign policy; if the US chooses the alliance over an agreement, so much the better.
In other words, both governments have been in disarray. With intra-governmental coordination lacking, it is unsurprising that inter-governmental coordination has been stunted.
This problem is indicative of a serious flaw in the alliance. It seems that Japan has the idea that if it supports the US unconditionally in places like Afghanistan and Iraq (which it did from 2001 onwards), it deserves the unconditional support of the US in the showdown with North Korea. As I suggested in this post, Japan views the alliance as mutual entrapment. The US clearly does not. And so over the past six years the purpose of the US-Japan alliance has become muddled, and now each ally has different expectations for the alliance; given this, it is no surprise that in the face of a shared concern they not only cannot agree on a common position, but they have even been unable to admit that serious differences exist.
Now that negotiations with North Korea might finally be ready to bear fruit, both governments are panicking about damage to the alliance. Inexcusable, really.