TOKYO – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, seeking Japanese help in pressing North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons, said Wednesday she hopes the alleged rape of a Japanese teenager by a Marine on Okinawa will not harm U.S.-Japan ties.
After ordering her top Asia hand to stay behind in China to pursue potentially promising new ways to jump-start the North Korean effort, Rice came here looking to quell outrage at the incident that may complicate cooperation between the United States and Japan.
"We certainly hope that there will not be lasting effects, it's a long-standing and strong alliance," she said. "Our concern right now is to see that justice is done, to get to the bottom of it and our concern is for the girl and her family. We really, really deeply regret it."
The recent arrest of the Marine on suspicion of raping a 14-year-old girl on the island and a series of other damaging criminal accusations against some of the 50,000 American troops based in Japan have inflamed popular anger at the U.S. military presence.
Although thousands of U.S. soldiers and their families were restricted to their bases, homes and work places last week by U.S. authorities, the Japanese government is warning that such crimes could shake the two countries' alliance and is demanding further steps to control American troops.
Japanese officials made clear before Rice's arrival that they expected her to address the matter and offer remorse about the alleged rape, which has already sparked numerous high-level expressions of sorrow from the United States.
"This is just a really deeply regrettable case," Rice said. "It should not happen."
U.S. officials said they expected the Japanese would raise the case at most of Rice's scheduled meetings with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, Foreign Minister Masahiko Koumura and Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, among others.
Komura has said Tokyo will install security cameras around U.S. bases as part of broader measures to curb crime and Ishiba urged the United States to understand that future crime can "shake the foundation" of the partnership.
The incident earlier this month has come at a particularly critical time in the multination effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons programs that involves the United States, China, Japan, North and South Korea and Russia.
Rice was in Tokyo on the third and last leg of an Asian tour that has been dominated by the issue. She had traveled first to South Korea and then to China for talks on how to push the process forward.
In Beijing on Tuesday, she won assurances from China that it would use its influence with North Korea to help and she and Chinese President Hu Jintao discussed several new ideas on how to overcome the current stalemate, officials said.
Details of those ideas are close held, but they appear to have given rise to hope that the process can get back on track as Rice on Wednesday instructed Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill not to accompany her to Tokyo but remain in Beijing to study them.
"He's continuing the discussions that we had with the Chinese ... on how to make progress in the six-party talks, how to get to a place where everyone is executing the obligations that they have undertaken," she said.
"We were having good discussions and it seemed like a good idea for Chris to stay behind and continue those discussions," Rice said. She replied with a flat and firm "no" when asked if she would elaborate.
Rice said Tuesday that U.S. and Chinese officials were looking at ways to "synchronize" the actions the North must take to meet its obligations, and the benefits it is to receive for those measures.
"We are the cusp of something very special here," she said in Beijing.
Although progress has been made in disabling Yongbyon, the United States says North Korea has not yet produced a full declaration of its nuclear programs, including details on the transfer of technology and know-how that could be used to develop atomic weapons.
The declaration was due almost two months ago, and the North says it has already met the requirement but the Bush administration rejects the claim, which has slowed progress on the process aimed at restoring stability in North Asia and bringing a final end to the Korean War.
Rice's trip coincided with the historic performance of the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang on Tuesday, an unprecedented cultural exchange between the Cold War foes.
However, the classically trained pianist has played down the significance of the event, given the totalitarian nature of the North's secretive, Stalinist regime. She was not watching when the concert was televised live around the world.
Rice said Wednesday that she had caught a rerun of parts of the performance and had been impressed.
"I heard the national anthem played in Pyongyang," she said. "That is special, it is. It's a good thing that Philharmonic went ... but I don't think anyone should overestimate the impact on the politics of North Korea."