Japan has the right to strike a foreign missile base if the country is under imminent threat of attack, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said Monday.

Speaking to reporters and referring to the pacifist Constitution, Abe said overseas strikes would fall within the legal parameters of self-defense “if there is no other way to prevent a missile attack on Japan.”

Abe, however, appeared to be discussing a theoretical possibility rather than a realistic response to the launch of ballistic missiles by North Korea into the Sea of Japan last week.

In making the remark, Abe referred to an official government view on overseas attacks expressed in 1956 by the then Defense Agency chief during a Lower House session.

“We have to have deeper debate on the issue” of the Constitution’s ban on the use of force to settle international disputes, and its limits on Japan having only self-defense capability, Abe added.

Later, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters: “We have to think carefully about whether we can really resort to arms before we are attacked because this is also a constitutional issue.”

Abe’s statements mirrored remarks Sunday by Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga.

“As a sovereign nation, it is natural to consider possessing the minimum capability (for pre-emptive strikes) under a certain framework,” Nukaga said, adding that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, New Komeito, need to agree on this.

Nukaga also said on a TV program that Japan should have the option of launching an overseas strike if it is clear an enemy is poised to attack.

North Korea test-fired seven ballistic missiles Wednesday, including a Taepodong-2, a model that is believed to have a design range that puts the U.S. mainland within its reach.

In January 2003, then Defense Agency Director General Shigeru Ishiba stirred controversy with comments about a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, saying Japan can ask the U.S. to attack the North’s missile bases if Pyongyang appears bent on an attack on Japan and is preparing for such hostility.

As for Tokyo’s tough stance against North Korea’s missile tests, Abe also said Monday there is no surprise that Japan is on the alert.

“We are of the belief that North Korea’s missile launches pose a positive threat to Japan and the surrounding areas,” he said.

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