Top U.S. General Reaffirms Commitment to Japan Amid N. Korea Tensions

TOKYO (Reuters) —
General Joseph Dunford (L), the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, shakes hands with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Abe’s official residence in Tokyo, Japan, Friday. (Reuters/Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool)

The top U.S. general repeated Washington’s “ironclad commitment” to the security of its close Asian ally, Japan, on Friday amid regional tensions over North Korea.

Fears about North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs have grown in recent weeks. Pyongyang has said it was considering plans to fire missiles over Japan toward the U.S. Pacific Territory of Guam, although North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to have delayed the decision.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and their Japanese counterparts agreed at a meeting in Washington on Thursday to work more closely on NorthKorea.

“The most important thing it [the ministers’ meeting] did was reaffirm the primacy of our bilateral relationship here in Asia-Pacific,” U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said at the start of a meeting with the Chief of Staff of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano.

“This is a very important time for security in the region and of course we are mostly focused on the threat coming out of North Korea,” Gen. Dunford said. “I think we have made it clear to North Korea and anyone else in the region that an attack on one is an attack on both of us.”

Sec. Tillerson said in Washington that the United States wanted dialogue with Pyongyang, but only if it was meaningful.

“Our effort is to cause them to want to engage in talks but engage in talks with an understanding that these talks will lead to a different conclusion than talks of the past,” he said.

In 2005 North Korea reached an agreement with six countries to suspend its nuclear program in return for diplomatic rewards and energy assistance, but the deal later collapsed.

Tensions have risen after North Korea conducted two missile tests in July which, like its five atomic bomb tests, were carried out in defiance of international pressure and United Nations resolutions.

President Donald Trump has vowed not to allow North Korea to develop nuclear missiles that could hit the mainland United States but Pyongyang sees its nuclear arsenal as protection against Washington and its partners in Asia.

Gen. Dunford said on Thursday that the United States and South Korea would go ahead with joint military drills next week despite pressure from North Korea and its main ally, China, to halt the contentious exercises that Pyongyang routinely describes as preparation for war.

North Korea has fired missiles and taken other steps in response to the war games in the past.

Trump warned North Korea last week it would face “fire and fury” if it threatened the United States, prompting North Korea to say it was considering plans to fire missiles toward Guam.

Both sides have since tempered their rhetoric somewhat, but with North Korea’s military capabilities growing, Japan has been looking to strengthening its defenses.

The Japanese Defense Ministry wants to introduce a land-based missile defense system called “Aegis Ashore” to address North Korea’s missile threats and has decided to seek funding in the next fiscal year to cover the system design costs, a Japanese defense official told Reuters.

“We will absolutely help and what’s most important for ballistic missile defense is that we integrate our capabilities,” Gen. Dunford said.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono said in Washington that Japan would strengthen its defense posture in response to the North Korean threat and provide $500 million to help boost maritime security in East Asia, where China has been pursuing extensive maritime claims that have angered regional neighbors.

Japan is likely to increase its defense spending at a faster pace in its next five-year plan from April 2019 than the annual 0.8 percent average rise in its current mid-term plan, the Nikkei business daily reported on Friday. Defense officials have said such a rise was desirable but Finance Ministry officials are cautious because of Tokyo’s mammoth public debt.

North Korea has repeatedly threatened to target Japan, which hosts around 54,000 U.S. military personnel, as well as South Korea and the United States with its missiles.

The United Nations earlier this month approved tough new sanctions against North Korea in response to its missile tests, which include a ban on North Korean seafood exports.

China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, has vowed to enforce the new sanctions, as it has done with previous ones, and says it’s ready to pay the price.

State-run Chinese newspaper the Global Times said on its website late Thursday that authorities in the Chinese border city of Hunchun were negotiating with North Korea about the fate of seafood trucks stuck between the two countries’ customs ports.

“The seafood that can’t enter China is ready to be gradually shipped back to North Korea,” a Hunchun official told the paper.

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