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US backs Japan on NKorea

TOKYO, Feb 17 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to reassure Japan Tuesday by backing it on North Korea and saying President Barack Obama will receive Prime Minister Taro Aso before any other foreign leader.

On the first full day of her Asian tour, Clinton said the United States will press North Korea to come clean on both its nuclear programme and on abducted Japanese citizens while warning Pyongyang against any missile launch.

"Let me underscore the commitment the United States has to the denuclearisation of North Korea and to the prevention of further proliferation," the chief US diplomat told a news conference.

She said she discussed the issue "at great length today" with Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone, who stood by her side.

But progress in the six-party talks stalled late last year when North Korea, which tested an atomic bomb in 2006, baulked at demands for inspections and other steps to verify disarmament.

Clinton renewed her earlier offer of normal relations and a full peace treaty if North Korea "verifiably and completely eliminates its nuclear programme." The 1950-1953 Korean conflict ended only with an armistice.

Touching on one of the most emotive issues for Japan, Clinton said she would press Pyongyang to account for the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped to train North Korean spies in language skills.

Japan was upset that the previous administration of George W. Bush removed North Korea from a blacklist of countries allegedly supporting terrorism without progress on the issue of abductees.

Clinton sought to stress her personal involvement when she met with families of the abductees later Tuesday.

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She was given a letter from the families who urged the Obama administration to "seriously consider re-listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism" as it reviews policy toward Pyongyang.

"International pressure against the North, particularly from the United States, is indispensable to any resolution of the issue," according to a copy of the letter signed by group chairman Shigeo Iizuka.

Japan has refused to provide aid to North Korea under the denuclearisation deal until it provides answers about the abductions.

Clinton meanwhile warned that a missile launch North Korea has hinted it is planning "would be very unhelpful in moving our relationship forward."

The isolated Stalinist country on Monday fuelled speculation that it is preparing to test a long-range missile, signalling that it will go ahead with a rocket launch as part of a "space development" programme.

Pyongyang has previously tested missiles under the guise of launching a satellite.

Clinton also said that Obama will meet Prime Minister Aso in Washington next week, on February 24. "This will be the first foreign leader visit that President Obama will be receiving at the White House," she added.

Nakasone said Aso accepted the invitation.

Clinton said on Monday that "the bilateral relationship between the United States and Japan is a cornerstone in our efforts around the world," and that both countries needed to work together to address the global financial crisis.

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Nakasone, speaking on the economic crisis at a joint press conference with Clinton Tuesday, said the Aso-Obama meeting "is a great chance for the world\’s biggest and second biggest economies to jointly tackle the issue."

Analysts said Clinton chose to visit Japan first — before Indonesia, South Korea and China — to ease Japanese concerns that the United States now saw China as the key power in Asia.

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