- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2003

Asked to assess the relative rigidity of the opening positions staked out by the United States and North Korea during last week’s six-nation conference in Beijing, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official unalarmingly declared, “We are neutral,” adding that Japan had “not made any assessment.” Two days later, after North Korea bellicosely told the conferees, which also included Russia, China and South Korea, that it had “no choice but to declare its possession of nuclear weapons” and “conduct a nuclear test,” the alarm bells went off in Tokyo. An assessment had finally been made.

On the very day that North Korea announced that it did not intend to resume nuclear talks, Japan’s Defense Ministry announced its intention to seek billions of dollars to build an American-designed sea-based and land-based anti-missile system to defend against a North Korean ballistic-missile attack delivering weapons of mass destruction to Japanese cities.

It has been a long time coming, but Japan has finally heard its wake-up call. “There has been a sea change, a dramatic turnaround,” Hideaki Kase, a Japanese conservative intellectual told the New York Times. “Finally, we are taking North Korea seriously as a threat for the first time.”

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Japan’s decision. As recently as May, President Bush reiterated his determination to establish before the end of next year a rudimentary anti-ballistic missile (ABM) operational capability at Alaska’s Fort Greeley, where as many as 10 interceptors are scheduled to be initially installed. Shortly afterwards, the United States would deploy a sea-based anti-missile system capable of protecting allies and U.S. troop deployments abroad. With Japan now expressing a keen interest in joining America’s efforts to counter the growing proliferation of ballistic missiles and WMD, the world’s two largest economies will likely soon be combining their resources.

Japan’s intense interest in sea-based anti-missile interceptors can only accelerate the development and deployment of this indispensable segment of the robust missile-defense system Mr. Bush has advocated. Summarizing its National Policy on Ballistic Missile Defense, the White House announced on May 20 that the United States would pursue an “evolutionary approach” to the development and deployment of missile defense: “The capabilities planned for operational use in 2004 and 2005 will include ground-based interceptors, sea-based interceptors, additional Patriot (PAC-3) units [which Japan has now embraced to supplement its sea-based interceptors] and sensors based on land, at sea and in space.” Subsequent deployments would include additional ground- and sea-based interceptors, airborne laser systems and space-based systems.

Amid a chorus of criticism attacking the administration for the inadequacy of allied participation in the war against Iraq, the Bush administrationdeclaredinMaythat “[m]issile-defense cooperation will be a feature of U.S. relations with close, long-standing allies.” Since then, Britain has decided to upgrade an important radar to ABM capability, Russia has revealed a major interest in cooperating with U.S. anti-missile policies and now Japan has come on board in a very big way. By any standard, these developments represent important diplomatic achievements in a policy area that will dominate the rest of this century.

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