Rice pledges 'full range' U.S. military defense of Japan

Thursday, October 19, 2006

TOKYO -- The United States is willing to use its full military might to defend Japan in light of North Korea's nuclear test, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday as she sought to assure Asian countries there is no need to jump into a nuclear arms race.

At her side, Rice's Japanese counterpart drew a firm line against his nation developing a nuclear bomb.

The top U.S. diplomat said she reaffirmed President Bush's pledge, made hours after North Korea's Oct. 9 underground test blast, "that the United States has the will and the capability to meet the full range -- and I underscore the full range -- of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan."

Rice spoke following discussions with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso, the first stop on her crisis mission to respond to the threat posed by the North.

Signs continued Wednesday that North Korea might be readying for a second nuclear test that could be carried out as soon as this week, while Rice is in Asia.

There were reports that North Korea had told China it was ready to conduct up to three more nuclear tests. But at the State Department in Washington, spokesman Tom Casey said, "We certainly haven't received any information from them, from the Chinese, that they've been told by Pyongyang that another test is imminent."

U.S. government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive situation, said there wasn't evidence to suggest that another nuclear test in North Korea was hours or even days away.

But given the underground nature of the testing, officials said, it could happen with little or no warning. Analysts have been monitoring the movement of trucks and VIP buses around test sites as well as military communications, media activity and official travel.

In Seoul, South Korea, the country's foreign minister -- who has been selected to become the next secretary-general of the United Nations -- warned the North not to detonate a second nuclear test.

"If North Korea conducts an additional test, the response of the international community will be much more serious," he said, providing no further detail.

Christopher Hill, the State Department's lead negotiator on North Korea, said on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" that there are "some indications" of a possible second test by the North, but he added, "We do not have any indication that it's going to happen imminently."

Rice's reference to U.S. willingness to honor the "full range" of the nation's security commitments was meant as a signal to allies that the United States does not want to see them embarking on a new nuclear arms race to protect themselves. It was also likely to be taken as a reminder to North Korea that, should it use nuclear weapons on a neighbor, the U.S. has powerful forces of its own -- including nuclear -- and is pledged to defend its friends in the region.

The United States is concerned that Japan, South Korea and perhaps Taiwan may want to develop their own nuclear weapons programs to counter a threat from North Korea. Such moves would anger China, which already has nuclear weapons, and raise tensions in the region.

North Korea contends it needs nuclear weapons to counter U.S. aggression. The United States has repeatedly said it does not intend to attack the North or topple its communist government.

The North has a standing army of about 1.2 million, with millions more in reserve, and a supply of missiles capable of reaching Asian cities. North and South Korea are technically still at war more than 50 years after the Korean conflict ended.

The U.S. has 29,500 troops stationed in South Korea, plus other air and naval forces in range. While the United States has no land-based nuclear weapons in Asia, it does have submarines equipped with nuclear weapons whose whereabouts are kept secret.

Japan, home to more than 35,000 U.S. troops, was Rice's first stop on a four-day tour of Asia and Russia.

"The United States has no desire to escalate this crisis. We would like to see it de-escalate," Rice told reporters.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made his first known public appearance since his country's recent nuclear test, attending a performance of songs praising him, the North's official media reported Wednesday. There was no mention of the nuclear test in the report.

The nuclear explosion has drawn strong international condemnation and U.N. sanctions that the North has rejected. Pyongyang, in turn, has threatened further unspecified moves.

Even discussing the issue is sensitive in Japan, with its troubled military history and its experience as the only nation where nuclear weapons were used in wartime.

"The government is absolutely not considering a need to be armed by nuclear weapons," Aso said with Rice at his side. "We do not need to acquire nuclear arms with an assurance by Secretary of State Rice that the bilateral alliance would work without fault."

Later Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insisted his government would not even discuss building a nuclear bomb.

"That debate is finished," Abe testily told reporters.

It was at least the third time since North Korea's test that Abe -- a defense hawk who came to office last month promising an assertive Japan -- has had to reassure jittery neighbors and an anxious United States that Tokyo would not abandon its ban.

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