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Japan, U.S. agree to keep up pressure on Pyongyang, say dialogue off table for now

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Staff Writer

Tokyo and Washington agreed Tuesday to continue to exert pressure on Pyongyang and beef up their trilateral cooperation with Seoul in reining in its nuclear and missile programs, while stressing that dialogue remained out of the question for the moment.

In a 20-minute telephone conference initiated by the Japan side in response to North Korea’s Sunday launch of a missile that would have been the longest-range yet if flown on a normal, instead of a “lofted,” trajectory, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also agreed to call on China to play a greater role in dealing with Pyongyang.

“What is important now is pressure,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told reporters on customary condition of anonymity.

The official said Japan and the United States agreed that they have “no intention” of opening up dialogue with the North unless the regime makes strides toward abandoning its atomic ambitions.

The official said Tokyo understands that the hard-line stance against the North is shared by new South Korea President Moon Jae-in.

“I believe there is no extraordinary difference between our stance and that of Moon,” the official said.

Kishida and Tillerson talked before the U.N. Security Council was to hold an emergency meeting Tuesday.

In a statement Monday, the council denounced the North’s “highly destabilizing behavior,” renewing vows to take “further significant steps,” including sanctions.

Kishida and Tillerson also agreed that they will strengthen cooperation with countries such as China and Russia in pressuring the North, the Foreign Ministry official added.

In what could be a sign of continued military pressure by the South, the U.S. Navy strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, which was deployed to waters off the Korean Peninsula last month, is still conducting joint drills with South Korean forces, a South Korean military officer was quoted by Kyodo News as saying Tuesday.

The Chosun Ilbo, a leading South Korean newspaper, on Tuesday quoted an unnamed South Korean military official as saying that the Vinson, despite being originally scheduled to leave the Sea of Japan this week, will remain in the area amid renewed regional tensions after the North’s latest missile test.

Kishida, meanwhile, met with visiting U.S. Adm. Harry Harris, head of Pacific Command, on Tuesday afternoon, sharing his recognition that the latest provocation by the North is “absolutely unacceptable.”

“We should cooperate in our effort to strengthen the deterrence and response capability of the U.S.-Japan alliance,” Kishida told Harris at the onset of the meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo.

“Our security environment in the region is becoming ever more severe, and it is further adding to the importance of the presence of U.S. forces. In this respect, I have high hopes in your continued leadership,” Kishida told Harris.

Harris responded by expressing his “firm belief” that the two countries’ alliance remains the “cornerstone of peace and stability in the region.”

Actions by North Korea “underscore not only the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance but also U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation,” he added.

Meeting Harris later in the day, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also blasted the continuing provocations by the North.

“The recent joint exercise between a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group and the Self-Defense Forces demonstrated a strong determination by Japan and the U.S. for the peace and security of this region,” Abe told Harris at the start of the meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said Sunday’s test-firing by the North was an indication that the reclusive nation has made “certain” headway in enhancing its missile technology.

The ballistic missile, which is believed to have flown on what is called a “lofted” trajectory, hitting an altitude of more than 2,000 km, is believed to have landed in the Sea of Japan inside Japan’s air defense identification zone, Inada said.

Judging from the shape of its engine, Inada noted the possibility that the missile was liquid-fueled. She also said that Japan could not confirm if it was fired from a mobile launchpad.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency boasted Monday that the test-firing was of a “new ground-to-ground medium long-range” missile called the Hwasong-12, which it claimed was “capable of carrying a large-size heavy nuclear warhead.” KCNA also said the missile flew 787 km and reached an altitude of 2,111.5 km.