WASHINGTON - The United States and Japan will step up defense cooperation to deal with the threat from nuclear-armed North Korea as tensions in East Asia remain high, officials from the two allies said Thursday.
“For this threat of North Korea, at this meeting we agreed to increase the pressure and to strengthen the alliance capability,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said after talks with senior U.S. officials in Washington.
U.S. fears about North Korea’s missile and nuclear bomb programs have grown in recent weeks. Pyongyang has said it is considering plans to fire missiles toward the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, although North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to have delayed his decision.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and their Japanese counterparts agreed at their “two plus two” meeting in Washington Thursday to work more closely on North Korea.
“In light of the threat of North Korea, the four of us confirmed the importance of the unwavering U.S. commitment to extended deterrence,” Onodera said.
Tillerson said the United States wants dialogue with Pyongyang, but only if it is meaningful.
“Our effort is to cause them to want to engage in talks but engage in talks with an understanding that these talks will lead to a different conclusion than talks of the past,” he said.
Japan intends to expand its role in its alliance with Washington “and augment its defense capabilities” while the United States “remains committed to deploying its most advanced capabilities to Japan,” the State Department said in a statement.
The Defense Ministry in Tokyo wants to introduce a land-based Aegis missile defense system to address North Korea’s missile threats and has decided to seek funding in the next fiscal year to cover the system design costs, a ministry official said.
Meanwhile, in Beijing on Thursday, Washington’s top military officer told reporters that solving the North Korean missile threat militarily would be “horrific” but that allowing Pyongyang to develop the capability to launch a nuclear attack on the United States is “unimaginable.”
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both reinforced that it was important to hold exchanges between their militaries to stabilize a relationship frequently roiled by disputes over security, diplomacy and trade.
“We both know that you and President Trump are committed to our improvement in military-to-military relations and we have approached it with great commitment, candor and we certainly want to deliver results,” Dunford told Xi in opening remarks.
On Friday, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Japan will strengthen its defense posture in response to the North Korean threat and provide $500 million to help boost maritime security in East Asia, where China has been pursuing extensive maritime claims.
Japan is likely to increase its defense spending at a faster pace in its next five-year plan — from April 2019 — than the annual 0.8 percent average rise in its current mid-term plan, sources said Friday. Defense officials have said such a rise is desirable but Finance Ministry officials are cautious because of Tokyo’s mammoth public debt.
North Korea has repeatedly threatened to target Japan, which hosts around 54,000 U.S. military personnel, as well as South Korea and the United States with its missiles.
North Korean missiles will have to fly over Japan to reach the area around Guam, worrying Tokyo that warheads or missile debris could fall on its territory.
The four ministers also called on the international community to “comprehensively and thoroughly implement” U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea so as to compel it to change course, according to the statement.
The ministers singled out China — which some call an economic enabler of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs — as needing to take “decisive measures” in regard to its defiant neighbor, prodding Beijing to tighten the economic screws on Pyongyang.
“We agreed to further strengthen effective pressure on North Korea toward its denuclearization,” Kono said. “We will urge China to take specific measures to make North Korea change its behavior.”
China accounts for about 90 percent of the North’s trade and is a major supplier of oil to the country.
In 2005, North Korea reached an agreement with six countries to suspend its nuclear program in return for diplomatic rewards and energy assistance, but the deal later collapsed.
U.S. President Donald Trump warned North Korea last week that it will face “fire and fury” if it threatens the United States, prompting North Korea to say it is considering plans to fire missiles toward Guam.
Both sides have since dialed back their rhetoric.
Trump has vowed not to allow North Korea to develop nuclear missiles that could hit the mainland U.S., but Pyongyang sees its nuclear arsenal as protection against the United States and its allies in Asia.
Pyongyang’s deputy U.N. ambassador told United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this week that its nuclear weapons program will never be up for negotiation as long as Washington’s “hostile policy and nuclear threat continue.”
Guterres spoke by telephone with Deputy Ambassador Kim In Ryong on Tuesday, the North Korean Mission to the United Nations said in a statement Thursday.
The U.S. and South Korea will go ahead with joint military drills next week, America’s top military official said Thursday, resisting pressure from the North and its ally China to halt the contentious exercises.
The drills, which involve tens of thousands of troops, are due to begin Monday.
North Korea views such exercises as preparations for invasion. The annual exercises have taken on greater significance this year due to the rise in tensions created by North Korea’s rapid progress in developing nuclear weapons and missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, has urged the U.S. and South Korea to scrap the drills in exchange for the North halting its weapons programs.
North Korea has in the past fired missiles and taken other steps in response to U.S. and South Korean exercises.
Easing tensions this week, North Korean media announced that Kim had delayed his decision to fire four missiles toward Guam, which hosts Anderson Air Force Base and navy facility. Trump welcomed the delay and called it “very wise.”