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North Korea is reportedly gearing up to fire the long-range Taepodong 2 ballistic missile, which is capable of hitting part of the mainland United States.

The reports follow North Korea’s refusal to resume the six-party talks on its nuclear-arms development until the U.S. lifts the financial sanctions it imposed on entities suspected of laundering money for the North. Furthermore, Tokyo and Washington have begun to apply increasing pressure on Pyongyang in connection with its abduction of foreign nationals and issues involving defectors from the North.

Pyongyang’s threat to fire the missile obviously represents a move to unnerve Tokyo and Washington. But if North Korea fired the missile, it would betray the trust of the international community by contravening the 1999 agreement with the U.S. that placed a moratorium on Pyongyang’s launch of ballistic missiles and the 2002 Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration, which committed the North to maintaining the freeze.

In March, when North Korea fired a short-range missile with a range of about 100 km, Gen. Burwell Bell, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, said in U.S. congressional testimony that there had been a “quantum leap” in accuracy in North Korean solid-fuel missiles, compared with liquid-fuel missiles.

North Korea in 1993 developed the 1,300-km-range Rodong missile capable of hitting anywhere in Japan, and in 1998 it fired the 1,500-km-plus-range Taepodong 1 missile, which flew over Japan and fell into the Pacific.

The two-stage Taepodong 2 missile has a range of 3,500 to 6,000 km and is capable of reaching Guam and Alaska

Gen. Bell also testified that North Korea was pushing the development of a 15,000-km-range intercontinental Taepodong 3 missile capable of hitting anywhere in the mainland U.S. Japan faces a real threat from North Korean missiles that could carry not only a nuclear bomb but also chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction.

The South Korean Defense Ministry estimates that North Korea has 2,500 to 5,000 tons of weapons-grade chemicals, citing the East Asian Strategic Review 2006, published by Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies.

The South Korean defense white paper, also quoted in the review, says that North Korea is thought to be capable of producing anthrax, smallpox and other biological weapons on its own.

During diplomatic normalization talks with North Korea held in 2002 in Malaysia, Japan demanded the abandonment of its Rodong missiles.

To deal with the North Korean missile threat, Japan and the U.S. are moving to jointly develop a ballistic missile defense system. They are now shifting from the stage of joint technical research.

In 2003, the government adopted a plan to expand the ballistic missile defense system. Under the plan, the Maritime Defense Force will deploy four Aegis-class destroyers with an advanced air-defense system while the Air Self-Defense Force will set up fire units with 16 PAC-3 Patriot missiles from 2006 to 2011.

In the “road map” on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, to which Tokyo and Washington agreed May 1, an increase in missile defense capabilities was a key issue.

Under the plan, the ASDF’s Air Defense Command will move in fiscal 2010 to U.S. Yokota Air Base, where the U.S. Fifth Air Force is based. At Yokota, a bilateral joint operations and coordination center will be established to coordinate air defense and missile defense activities.

The U.S. X-band early-warning radar system will be deployed at an ASDF base in Aomori Prefecture by yearend to provide U.S.-collected data to Japanese authorities. Joint Japan-U.S. technical research on missile defense was prompted by North Korea’s 1998 firing of the Taepodong 1 missile. The North Korean threat to fire a new missile is likely to accelerate Japanese moves to expand the missile defense system.

The six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have been suspended since last November. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has applied pressure to North Korea amid reports of North Korea’s human rights abuses. This follows financial sanctions imposed because of the North’s counterfeiting of U.S. currency and money laundering.

In late April, President George W. Bush met with the relatives of Megumi Yokota, a Japanese girl abducted by North Korean agents and North Korean defectors now living in South Korea. In May, six North Korean defectors became the first group of refugees accepted by the U.S. under the new North Korean human rights act. This shows the Bush administration is taking a harder stance toward Pyongyang.

The administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, which has upheld the policy of “dialogue and pressure” toward the North, is beginning to employ more pressure, after little progress was made at the Tokyo-Pyongyang diplomatic normalization talks in February. The change has come under the leadership of Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the top contender for the premiership.

The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito in late April presented to the Lower House a bill for dealing with North Korean human rights abuses. The bill calls for economic sanctions against the North unless it redresses this problem.

The government is tightening pressure on North Korea through stricter enforcement of existing laws. For example, Japanese authorities placed on the international wanted list two North Korean spies as suspects in the abduction of Japanese nationals. They also arrested a South Korean on suspicion of smuggling hundreds of kilograms of stimulant drugs into Japan from the North, and searched a North Korean ship for evidence in the case.

Japan-North Korea diplomatic normalization must be based on a comprehensive settlement of pending problems, such as Pyongyang’s nuclear-arms and missile development and its abduction of Japanese nationals. As long as North Korea refuses to return to the six-party talks, Japan and the U.S. are likely to turn up the pressure.

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