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Japan will send Self-Defense Forces observers to a joint military drill to be staged next week by the United States and South Korea in an effort to deter future aggression by the North, the Defense Ministry said Friday.

Four Maritime Self-Defense Force officers will join the exercise in the Sea of Japan as observers from Sunday through Tuesday in the first such move by Japan.

The step is intended to demonstrate Tokyo’s strong unity with Washington and Seoul against North Korea, even though Japan will not send any MSDF vessels to the drill, government sources said.

The U.S. military has said the joint drill is to counter any provocation from North Korea. The sources said it is rare for Japan to join a military drill preparing for possible hostility by a specific country.

The decision by the government came in response to a formal invitation from the United States and South Korea. North Korea, which is blamed for the death of 46 sailors in the March sinking of a South Korean warship in the Yellow Sea, has urged the joint exercise be canceled.

Japan’s participation is expected to provoke criticism from the North and its main ally, China.

The sources also said Tokyo has judged that sending SDF staff as observers would not violate the Constitution, which the government interprets as prohibiting the country from exercising the right to collective self-defense, or the right to counter an attack on an ally.

Some 20 vessels, 200 aircraft and 8,000 U.S. and South Korean service members will take part in the exercise, scheduled between Sunday and Wednesday and coming as the first in a series of joint drills between the two countries that will continue in the coming months.

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