TOKYO (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates asked Thursday for Japan's help in heading off a crisis with North Korea, while easing pressure on its Asian ally over the huge American military bases on its territory.
South Korea would be within its rights to retaliate if North Korea mounts an attack, Mr. Gates said, but the United States, Japan, South Korea and China should try to prevent North Korea from provoking a war.
"The objective that we all have in common is how do we prevent another provocation from taking place?" Mr. Gates said.
Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa condemned "wanton" aggression by the North and said Japan fully supports South Korea.
Earlier this week, Mr. Gates lobbied China to pressure the North not to go too far. Mr. Gates will go to South Korea on Friday for a quick, hastily arranged crisis session about the North. The United States wants Japan to expand nascent military ties with South Korea and present a unified front against North Korea.
The United States fears the risk of war is rising between U.S. ally South Korea and the heavily militarized and increasingly unpredictable regime in North Korea, which the Pentagon also considers a looming threat to the U.S. mainland.
North Korea is believed to have sunk a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 people. In November, the North killed four when it shelled front-line Yeonpyeong Island, which sits in waters the North claims as its own.
Mr. Gates said little about the U.S. military bases in Japan, but he showed flexibility on an issue that badly divided the United States and Japan last year. He said the United States would be patient while Japanese political leaders try to blunt popular opposition to the continued presence of U.S. Marines and loud aircraft on crowded Okinawa island.
"We do understand that it is politically a complex matter in Japan," Mr. Gates said during a news conference with Mr. Kitazawa. "We intend to follow the lead of the Japanese government in working with the people of Okinawa to take their interests and their concerns into account."
Previously, U.S. officials made a point of stressing Japan's obligations to honor its basing agreement with the United States. Under the 50-year-old U.S.-Japan security alliance, some 47,000 American troops are stationed in Japan. The United States must respond to attacks on Japan and protects the country under its nuclear umbrella.
Relations between Tokyo and Washington soured when Japan's previous government tried to move a Marine base out of Okinawa. In May, the two nations agreed to adhere to the original plan and shift Marine Air Station Futenma to a less-populated part of the island, but strong local opposition has stalled the move.
"While issues associated with Okinawa and Futenma have tended to dominate the headlines this past year, the U.S.-Japan defense alliance is broader, deeper and indeed richer than any single issue," Mr. Gates said Thursday.