By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said on Monday tension on the Korean peninsula underlined the importance of tight U.S.-Japan ties and was key to his decision to keep a controversial U.S. airbase on Okinawa.
Analysts said, however, that while North Korea had given the struggling Japanese leader a good excuse for backtracking on a pledge to try to move the Marines' base off the southern Japanese island, the plan faces huge hurdles given harsh local opposition.
Voter perception that Hatoyama has mishandled the dispute has frayed ties with Washington and eroded government support, threatening the ruling Democratic Party's chances in a midyear upper house election it must win to avoid policy deadlock.
Apologizing for breaking his word, a subdued Hatoyama told Okinawa's governor on Sunday he had concluded the Futenma base should be shifted to the Henoko area of the northern Okinawa city of Nago -- largely in line with a 2006 U.S.-Japan deal.
But Okinawa's governor said it would be tough to accept the plan, which also flies in the face of demands by a tiny coalition partner to shift Futenma off the island.
"I decided that it is of utmost importance that we place the Japan-U.S. relationship on a solid relationship of mutual trust, considering the current situation in the Korean peninsula and in Asia," Hatoyama told reporters on Monday.
BEARING THE BURDEN
In the campaign that swept the Democrats to power last year, Hatoyama had raised hopes the Marine base could be moved off Okinawa, host to about half the U.S. forces in Japan.
But Washington sought to stick to the 2006 deal to move the facility from the crowded central city of Ginowan to Nago.
Hatoyama later backtracked, saying some Marines had to stay to deter threats. During a visit to Beijing on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended Hatoyama for making "the difficult but nevertheless correct decision."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano on Monday held out hope that Okinawans, many of whom resent bearing a big share of the burden for the U.S.-Japan alliance, could yet be persuaded to accept the deal.
Shifting Futenma's functions elsewhere is a condition for moving up to 8,000 Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam.
"There will be criticism of course. But if the actual burden is reduced, we will have achieved something for the Okinawan people," Hirano said. "If people understand this was done for the sake of Japan's security ... this will be seen as progress."
Japan's Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa heads to the Pentagon on Tuesday to discuss the relocation plan with his U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Pentagon said.
Analysts said, however, it was not clear whether the plan could be implemented, whatever Washington and Tokyo agreed.
Anti-base activists plan a rally to oppose the plan on May 28, the same day media say the two governments will announce a bilateral deal and Hatoyama will hold a news conference to explain the deal to the public.
"The easiest part to solve is between the U.S. and Japanese governments," Keio University professor Yasunori Sone said.
"But the coalition problem remains, and most difficult of all is (persuading) the people of Okinawa," he said. "The situation is far more difficult than it was last year and it will be almost impossible to persuade the Okinawans."
(Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds and Chisa Fujioka in Tokyo, Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Will Dunham)