LEAD: Ex-top nuclear negotiator Yabunaka named vice foreign minister.
(EDS: UPDATING WITH YABUNAKA QUOTES IN 4TH-5TH GRAFS, UPDATING YACHI'S STATUS IN 7TH-8TH GRAFS, FIXING MISLEADING INFO IN 11TH GRAF, EDITING REDUNDANT PARTS)
Mitoji Yabunaka and Kenichiro Sasae, Japan's former and current top negotiators to the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue, were given the Foreign Ministry's top administrative posts on Thursday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Yabunaka, 59, was named vice foreign minister, the ministry's top bureaucrat, in a major reshuffle of key officials and ambassadors that the Cabinet endorsed the same day. He replaced Shotaro Yachi.
Sasae, 56, director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, was promoted to the post Yabunaka vacated. Akitaka Saiki, 55, minister and deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, succeeded Sasae.
''2008 is an extremely important year for Japanese diplomacy,'' Yabunaka said in his first news conference. ''I will do my best and work head-on to address the mountain of pending issues.''
He vowed to continue dialogue with North Korea on realizing its denuclearization and resolving the issue of its abductions of Japanese nationals, as well as to ensure Japan's successful hosting of the Group of Eight summit in July and the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in May.
Political observers believe the appointments of Yabunaka and Sasae to the top posts are aimed at showing the importance that Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's administration attaches to its dealings with Pyongyang, including the unresolved abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents.
Yachi, 64, who has been vice foreign minister since January 2005, will retire from the foreign service but serve as an adviser at the ministry.
During his 39-year career, he also held such posts as assistant deputy chief Cabinet secretary, deputy vice minister for foreign policy and director general of the Treaties Bureau.
Yachi's successor, Yabunaka, who has been deputy foreign minister since January 2005, joined the Foreign Ministry in 1969 and has been director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, consul general in Chicago and minister to Japan's permanent mission in Geneva.
Saiki takes over from Sasae the challenging task of pressing North Korea to fulfill its denuclearization promises under the six-party framework and to resolve the abduction issue, a major obstacle preventing the two sides from normalizing diplomatic ties.
Saiki was involved in negotiations with North Korea as Japan's chief delegate at bilateral talks when he was deputy chief of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau.
Some government officials wanted Yachi to stay in his post until the Group of Eight summit Japan will host in July. But the proposal was rejected due to a tacit rule that a vice foreign minister's term be around three years.
Ambassador to Ireland Keiichi Hayashi, 56, was appointed deputy vice minister.
The government named Consul General in Los Angeles Kazuo Kodama, 54, as press secretary, replacing Mitsuo Sakaba, 58, who leaves the spokesman's post after 17 months to become ambassador to Vietnam.
Other ambassadorial appointments were Hideo Sato, 58, director of the First Middle East Division, as envoy to Afghanistan, and Consul General in Seattle Kazuo Tanaka, 61, as envoy to Bolivia.
Director General for Sub-Saharan African Affairs Shuichiro Megata, 57, was named ambassador to Peru, replacing Hitohiro Ishida, 61, who became Ambassador to Argentina.
Tetsuro Kawaguchi, 59, senior assistant of the General Affairs Division, was appointed ambassador to Madagascar and Comoros. Kanji Kitazawa, 60, regional coordinator in charge of the Caribbean at the Latin America and Caribbean Affairs Bureau, took the post of ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
All the appointments took effect Thursday.