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Five-year-old tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are intensifying, and Japan is growing increasingly nervous about the prospects of another missile launch from its reclusive neighbor.

It was against this backdrop that former U.S. Defense chief William Perry arrived in Tokyo on Thursday.

His arrival coincided with a U.S.-North Korea game of chicken being played out this week in New York and Washington, where the two sides are discussing a U.S. demand for access to suspected underground nuclear sites in North Korea. The dialogue appears to be deadlocked with Pyongyang insisting that the U.S. pay $300 million if any search comes up empty.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang seems to be fueling the fire with a series of provocative statements. “The U.S. imperialists … are bringing the situation to the brink of war,” read a statement issued by the official Korean Central News Agency on Dec. 2. “We solemnly declare that our revolutionary armed forces will never pardon the challenge of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces but answer it with an annihilating blow.”

It added the target of North Korean attacks will include Japan and South Korea.

Although the U.S. has shifted the focus of the bilateral talks since November to new suspicions regarding the alleged nuclear facilities, Tokyo remains more concerned about another part of North Korea’s military program — missile development and another possible launch of a Taepodong-type ballistic missile.

Defense Agency officials and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi have repeatedly denied in past weeks that no more launches are imminent. However, a South Korean news report in November said intelligence authorities there and in the United States and Japan have confirmed that a North Korean truck left a missile production factory Nov. 3 in Pyongyang and arrived at a missile launch site in Musudan, 400 km northeast of the capital.

The report quoted the intelligence sources as saying they suspect two Taepodong-1 intermediate-range ballistic missiles were aboard the truck and that fuel injection into the missiles was under way, likely in preparation for a launch by late November or early December — taking into account that the fuel injection process usually takes three to five weeks.

Nevertheless, Defense Agency officials continue to maintain that there is no conclusive information — especially from the U.S. — that North Korea will fire off another missile. Defense Agency officials said they have not begun special surveillance operations as they did before the first Taepodong launch Aug. 31, dispatching an Aegis missile-tracking destroyer and data collection aircraft to the Sea of Japan.

This month, KCNA has repeatedly released stories claiming that the U.S. is preparing to invade North Korea under “Operation Plan 5027,” which Pyongyang says spells out U.S. military contingency plans if a war erupts on the Korean Peninsula.

In Seoul on Tuesday, Perry told South Korean President Kim Dae Jung that the U.S. planned to carry out a pre-emptive strike against North Korea in 1994 when Pyongyang provocatively reacted to U.S. attempts to halt its nuclear program.

After North Korea’s launch in August, the Defense Agency was criticized by the public and by lawmakers for its poor management of information. The agency says it is taking a different tack. “The agency has changed its long-standing stance on secrecy and now we are determined to speak openly about what we know (if another launch becomes imminent),” a senior agency official said.

As if to punctuate that point, Defense Agency chief Hosei Norota told a Diet committee Wednesday that the agency has information that a missile-carrying vehicle was moved off a launch site and later returned to the same site, and that North Korea is building new missile-related sites. “That comment by Mr. Norota was very remarkable,” said one source. “In the past, the agency would never have provided such information voluntarily.”

In the event of a second launch, the agency’s Defense Policy Bureau will act as the information hub and immediately release information directly to the Cabinet as well as to ministries and some influential lawmakers, agency sources said. “North Korea wants to use its missiles as a means of political intimidation and does not intend to fire them into Japanese or South Korean territory because its leaders know what will happen if they did,” said a retired top Self-Defense Force commander who requested anonymity. “But what surprised me most about their last launch was that they were not afraid of the risk that part of the missile might fall onto Japan.”

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