By JOSEPH COLEMAN
The Associated Press
Friday, June 23, 2006; 7:04 AM
TOKYO -- Japan and the United States agreed Friday to expand their cooperation on a ballistic missile defense shield, moving to protect themselves amid concerns that North Korea could test-fire a long-range missile.
The agreement, signed by Foreign Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer, commits the two countries to jointly produce interceptor missiles, Japan's Foreign Ministry said.
Officials said the agreement had been previously negotiated and was not triggered by fears that North Korea is preparing to test a missile.
But the timing of the announcement underscored the determined cooperation between the United States and its top Asian ally to protect themselves against the threat of Pyongyang's missile program.
North Korea's 1998 test-firing of a missile over northern Japan was Tokyo's primary impetus for signing on to the idea of joint missile defense.
The agreement allows the transfer of ballistic missile defense technology from Japan to the United States, a touchy issue in Japan, which has long adhered to a self-imposed ban on arms exports in line with its pacifist constitution.
The announcement came hours after Japanese officials said a high-resolution radar that can detect incoming missiles had been deployed at a base in northern Japan.
The so-called X-Band radar was transferred from the U.S. military's Misawa Air Base in Misawa to the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force's Shariki base in Tsugaru, about 360 miles northeast of Tokyo, Japan's Defense Agency said.
The radar is expected to begin monitoring airspace this summer for ballistic missiles, a Defense Agency said on condition of anonymity citing policy. The radar is solely to monitor missiles and not fitted with a missile interceptor, she said.
Foreign Minister official Saori Nagahara said Japan and the U.S. have not decided when to begin production of interceptor missiles, but the development phase was expected to take about nine years. The agreement updates a November 1983 pact on arms transfers and a December 2004 missile defense cooperation arrangement.
South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok, meanwhile, warned the North that firing a missile would not force the United States to make concessions.
The North has offered to talk to Washington about its missile concerns, in line with its long-held desire for direct discussions with the U.S. The Bush administration has rejected the offer and insists it will only meet with the North in six-nation talks over the communist country's nuclear program.
"It seems clear that even if North Korea fires a missile, the United States would not make a compromise," Lee told a parliamentary committee in Seoul.
U.S. officials say a Taepodong-2 missile _ believed capable of reaching the United States _ is possibly being fueled at the North's launch site on its northeastern coast.
Intelligence reports say fuel tanks have been seen around the missile, but officials say it's difficult to determine from satellite photos if a rocket is being fueled.
Lee said a "series of activities by North Korea" were consistent with a missile launch. "North Korea should immediately halt moves of its missile launch," he said.
U.S. officials have warned North Korea will face unspecified penalties if it goes ahead with the launch. China and Russia _ the North's last major allies, have also expressed alarm.
"We still hope that they recognize that launching that missile would only isolate them further, and that they will make the right decision and not launch the missile," U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow told The Associated Press on Friday.
The Bush administration said it was committed to seeking a diplomatic solution to the problem.
Vice President Dick Cheney told CNN on Thursday that North Korea's missile capabilities "are fairly rudimentary" and expressed skepticism the missile could reach U.S. territory. He rebuffed suggestions that Washington launch a pre-emptive strike.
U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, briefing reporters during a visit by President Bush to Hungary, expressed reservations that the United States could intercept and destroy such a missile, saying the U.S. missile defense system was still in a developmental stage.
"We think diplomacy is the right answer and that is what we are pursuing," Hadley said. "The way out of this is for North Korea to decide not to test this missile."
U.S. forces, meanwhile wrapped up their largest military exercise in the Pacific since the Vietnam War, showing North Korea and others its ability to quickly assemble massive combat power.
The five days of war games brought together three aircraft carriers along with 22,000 troops and 280 warplanes off the island of Guam in the western Pacific.
The exercise "was a demonstration of the U.S. Pacific Command's ability to quickly amass a force in a joint combat environment and project peace, power and presence in the region," Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula told The Associated Press.
Associated Press Writers Burt Herman, Jae-soon Chang and Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul, Eric Talmadge in Andersen Air Force Base, Guam and Chisaki Watanabe in Tokyo contributed to this report.