Rumsfeld assures Japan on North Korea threat

Sunday, November 16, 2003

TOKYO -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Saturday assured Japan that North Korea would not be allowed to undermine its security, but also pressed for more legal protections for U.S. troops based in this country.

At a joint news conference with Japan's top defense official, Shigeru Ishiba, Rumsfeld also thanked the government for the billions of dollars in humanitarian aid it has pledged for Iraq's reconstruction, and he gave no hint of disappointment at Japan's delay in sending security troops there.

"We are confident that our friends here will make decisions that are appropriate to them," Rumsfeld said when asked about the government's decision to put off a troop deployment out of concern about the flareup of violence in Iraq.

Ishiba said the government is closely monitoring the situation in Iraq and is inclined to send troops.

"We would like to do it as soon as possible," he said.

One of the tougher issues in U.S.-Japan defense relations is the question of North Korea, whose arsenal of ballistic missiles -- coupled with its development of nuclear weapons -- is an immediate threat to Japan.

Some in Japan have expressed concern that if the United States made security guarantees to North Korea -- as the communist government is demanding in exchange for talks on its nuclear program, and as President Bush has suggested may happen -- it could leave Japan even more vulnerable.

Rumsfeld said it was premature to talk about security guarantees for North Korea.

"I can say this: The United States government is not going to make any arrangements with any other country -- that one or others -- that would in any way undermine our security agreement with Japan," he said.

Ishiba said he felt confident that even if the United States made a deal with North Korea, that would not automatically lessen Japan's security.

"With an assurance or guarantee given to the North Koreans, and if there is an unjust attack made on Japan, then the United States I'm sure would have no change in its intention ... to defend our nation," he said.

The North Korean threat is a driving force behind Japan's accelerating effort to develop a defense against ballistic missiles, in cooperation with the United States.

There are about 45,000 U.S. troops based in Japan -- more than half on the southern island of Okinawa. Legal protection for American troops accused of crimes in Japan is one of the most sensitive issues between the two governments, and Rumsfeld raised the matter in meetings on Saturday.

At the heart of the dispute is a U.S. demand that during the period between a U.S. service member's arrest on suspicion of a crime and his or her indictment, an attorney should be made available during any questioning. The Japanese say this goes beyond the protections it offers its own citizens and therefore is not appropriate. Talks on this dispute broke off late last summer.

"It is certainly my hope that they will be reestablished at some point in the period ahead," Rumsfeld said.

Another U.S. official involved in Rumsfeld's meeting said he presented it as an issue of urgency.

Also discussed was the controversy over the large U.S. military presence on Okinawa, which many on the island want to see further reduced because of the proximity of U.S. bases to urban areas.

Rumsfeld was flying to Okinawa on Sunday to see the situation for himself and to talk with U.S. troops. Later Sunday he was flying to Seoul for two days of talks with South Korean officials and visits with U.S. troops.

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