News & Current Affairs

September 19, 2008

Japan minister quits in rice row

Japan minister quits in rice row

Seiichi Ota. File photo.

Mr Ota only took over his portfolio in August this year

Japan’s farm minister, Seiichi Ota, has tendered his resignation because of a food scandal involving tainted rice.

Mr Ota’s ministry has admitted it was told in January 2007 that a food company was distributing rice tainted with pesticide.

Mr Ota had earlier said he saw no need to make “too much of a fuss over it”.

It has since emerged that the rice, destined for industrial uses, was resold as a food product and served to the elderly.

The rice has been found to be tainted with pesticides and mould, and was known to be unfit for human consumption.

No-one has been reported as ill as a result of eating the rice; a government official said this was because the density of contaminants was low.

“I met Prime Minister [Yasuo] Fukuda and told him my decision to resign, considering the seriousness of the tainted rice problem for the society,” Mr Ota said.

Japanese broadcaster NHK said his resignation had been accepted.

Japan faces general elections soon, possibly as early as next month.

Contamination spreads

As information trickled out, it became clear that the bad rice was sold to more than 300 firms, including brewers, food ingredient wholesalers and sweet makers.

A government report released this week showed that the rice was imported from China, Vietnam and elsewhere, and intended for use in the making of glue and other industrial products.

Instead, the Osaka-based Mikasa Foods company sold the rice on to firms which used it for making foods that have been distributed to hospitals and care homes.

Young people have also been affected as the bad rice was used in making some snacks sold in convenience stores, and in school lunches.

Japanese media reported that police said on Wednesday that the president of one of the small companies that had bought the rice from Mikasa Foods, had committed suicide by hanging himself.

When Mr Ota’s ministry first heard of the tainted rice entering the food chain, he said it was unable to uncover any wrongdoing.

Mr Ota only took over the portfolio in August this year.

The minister has come under fire after admitting his ministry “overlooked” the illegal distribution of rice unfit for human consumption.

Our correspondent says Mr Ota is known for his slips of the tongue, such as his expressed confidence that no-one would die from eating tainted rice and that no fuss was necessary.

The senior bureaucrat at the agriculture ministry had already resigned.

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September 5, 2008

Envoys meet for North Korea talks

Envoys meet for North Korea talks

A file photo from February 2008 of a US inspector studying disabled nuclear equipment at Yongbyon plant in North Korea

A sticking point in talks has been how to verify North Korea’s disarmament

Negotiators from the US, South Korea and Japan are to meet in Beijing to discuss the deadlock over North Korea’s nuclear program.

The talks follow initial moves by North Korea to reverse steps to dismantle its nuclear plant at Yongbyon.

North Korea accuses the US of failing to meet its obligations under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament deal.

This week it began moving some disassembled parts out of storage and back to the Yongbyon reactor.

“We need to break the deadlock at an early date,” South Korean negotiator Kim Sook said as he left for Beijing.

“It is an important moment in which North Korea should resume the disablement measures and enter the six-way talks process.”

Stand-off with US

North Korea agreed in February 2007 to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for aid and diplomatic concessions.

Foreign camera crews prepare to film the demolition of the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear plant in North Korea on 27 June

In June it handed over long-awaited details of its nuclear facilities. In return, it expected the US to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But the US wants North Korea to agree to a process of verifying the information – something the two sides have so far failed to do.

Last week North Korea announced it had halted disabling work at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Officials from countries negotiating with North Korea now say that it is moving some equipment out of storage and back to the plant.

Envoys from the US, Japan and South Korea will hold a hastily-arranged meeting later on Friday. A Chinese negotiator will join the talks on Saturday.

“There is no information on whether North Korean officials will come to Beijing,” the South Korean envoy said.

Probe delay

In a separate development, North Korea has announced that it will delay a fresh probe into the abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies.

In 2002, it admitted that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens. Five have been returned and Pyongyang says the other eight died.

But Japan insists that North Korea abducted more people than it acknowledges, and wants more proof of the eight deaths.

North Korea said it would hold off on the probe until it established the policies of the new Japanese leader.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced his resignation earlier this week and the current favorite to replace him is the ruling party secretary-general, Taro Aso.

A well-known hawk, he has called for a tougher line towards North Korea – something that will worry the communist state.

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