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Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister of Japan, spoke last week with Tom Plate for Global Viewpoint in the glistening new ultramodern " Kantei" residence in downtown Tokyo. Tom Plate is a columnist for several U.S. and Asian newspapers and founder of the Asia-Pacific Media Network.

GLOBAL VIEWPOINT: Your public-opinion approval ratings are at a very healthy 50 percent level, the economy seems to be a little better, the Japanese consumer is starting to spend again, and your government' s diplomatic efforts have helped provide impetus for the six-party talks on North Korea. But your economic reform effort is stalled?

JUNICHIRO KOIZUMI: From the very beginning as prime minister I never thought the reforms I have been aiming at would become a reality very soon. Those approval ratings have been at times high and at times low (he chuckles). Though criticized by many people, the direction I have been taking, and the methods that I am applying, haven' t changed since I took office. Even before I took office (almost two years ago), I have been saying it will be necessary to put up with pain for two or three years.

GV: It looks likely you will have another term. You' ll be reelected head of the Liberal Democratic Party on Sept. 20, then go to the voters later this fall. No one is going to knock you off. Maybe this new-found political stability in the PM' s position will help the economy and the markets?

KOIZUMI: Yes, stock prices are picking up these days. But, only in April, when the stock market dropped below 8,000 yen, economists said the crisis would continue and prices would decline more.

Yet, two or three months before that point I had learned that stock prices were in fact pretty much at the same level as they were 20 years ago -- not 10 years ago at the time of our bubble, but 20 years ago. So common sense would tell you that it would not be possible for stock prices to go below that level. I felt that in April prices were more or less at the bottom.

There are also some people who claim we need to reflate the economy and take measures to somehow stimulate stock prices. " Prime Minister," people say, " you' ve been telling us there will be no economic growth without reform, but that' s wrong; without economic growth, there can' t be any reform."

My reply is that with reflationary policy or stock-related policy, there can be no quick fix, there can be no panacea. If the people who have been saying there can' t be reform without growth are right, then there' s no need for reform -- if, even without any reform, the economy will grow!

I am going to stay the course, stick to the policy that I' ve been recommending -- tax, regulatory and fiscal-spending reforms.
Now, the economists -- or even the politicians for that matter -- who have been criticizing me have been saying that more government bonds should be issued (to stimulate the economy with more spending from this borrowing). In other words, let' s have a bigger national budget!

GV: In other words, more highways and bridges, the kind of thing Japan really doesn' t need any more of -- the same old prescriptions, right?


GV: What about North Korea?

KOIZUMI: The North Korean issue -- like all of these military issues -- needs time to be resolved. People should stop expecting such things to be ironed out overnight. Just look at the Korean conflict -- already 50 years has gone by and the problem still hasn' t been resolved!

There are even people who claim that the so-called Pyongyang Declaration, which Kim Jong Il and I signed last Sept. 17, is dead. It is not! The very realization of the six-party talks (in Beijing) is evidence that the Pyongyang Declaration is still alive, though these talks are just a (ital) step (unital) toward the solution of all the outstanding issues, in accordance with the declaration.

GV: Can the five parties -- Japan, South Korea, the United States, China and Russia -- keep a united front? Will the sixth party -- North Korea -- try to divide and conquer by sticking little wedges of division into everything? Is this scenario something you' ve worked on with your allies?

KOIZUMI: Japan, the United States and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) have maintained very close contact with each other over the last year. We' ve also maintained contacts with the Chinese and the Russians. And at numerous international meetings and conferences, I' ve repeatedly stressed the importance of the North Korean issue. Those efforts are -- finally, at long last -- bearing fruit.

GV: Japan' s relationship with the United States -- the " global alliance" as it is now called -- has led to a political hot potato: the issue of sending Japanese troops to Iraq. Will this actually happen?

KOIZUMI: Yes. In fact, the statute on which the troop dispatch will be based will be effective for four years, to help in the reconstruction of Iraq. The law enables the dispatch of our Japanese Self-Defense Forces for the purpose of humanitarian and reconstruction assistance.

We will try to investigate on the ground (in Iraq) what are the specific needs of the Iraqi people. Then, depending on the requirements or needs, we' ll be able to send the SDF -- or even government personnel or private sector people.

Despite the terror attack on U.N. headquarters in Iraq and the death of its top representative there, we must never succumb to the intimidation of the terrorists. Even before the Iraqi war, I' ve been stating that the foundation of Japanese policy is to see the growth of the U.S. alliance and of international cooperation proceed hand in hand. In fact, we have been addressing all these issues in line with this basic policy, whether in our response to terrorism or our efforts in Afghanistan, or with the Korean issue.

GV: You' ll almost certainly get a second term, which, under a change in the constitution of your Liberal Democratic Party, means a probable three more years. The question is, what will you do with this big chance?

KOIZUMI: What drives me is this single-mindedness for reform -- we just have to carry out reform.

My favorite novelist -- Shiba Ryotaro -- once said to young students: The great quality of humans is that they do not become pessimistic. And as a politician, we should not fall into pessimism.

(c) 2003, Tom Plate/Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 9/15/03)