By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 11, 2006; A14
TOKYO, July 11 -- In their toughest comments to date on North Korea's missile tests, Japanese officials on Monday called for a debate on whether Japan should pursue military capabilities that would enable preemptive strikes at North Korean missile bases. Japan currently does not possess such technology.
At the same time, Japan backed away from pushing for a vote at the U.N. Security Council on Monday on a measure to impose tough sanctions on North Korea. U.S. and Japanese diplomats have continued to face regional opposition to the plan, particularly from China and South Korea, the communist state's most important benefactors.
Seeking a diplomatic breakthrough, a Chinese delegation that included Deputy Foreign Minister Wu Dawei arrived in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, for an official six-day trip. China requested a postponement of the Security Council vote until Wu completed his visit.
On Monday afternoon, China, backed by Russia, presented a nonbinding draft statement to the U.N. Security Council that "deplores" North Korea's missile tests and expresses "grave concern" about its threat to conduct more. The statement, which did not threaten sanctions, was a surprisingly strong rebuke of North Korea by its most sympathetic supporters in the 15-nation council. Britain and the United States rejected the statement, saying it was not strong enough.
With all of Japan easily within range of North Korean missiles, an opinion poll conducted by Japan's NHK television showed that 82 percent of respondents in Japan said they felt "fearful" or "somewhat fearful" of the seven or more missiles that North Korea shot into the Sea of Japan on July 4. In its post-World War II pacifist constitution, Japan renounced the right to maintain military forces and to settle international disputes by force. In past decades, it has built up a 240,000-member military on grounds that the constitution allows strict self-defense. Interpretation of the restrictions continues: The Japanese parliament has previously ruled that a preemptive strike on missiles about to be fired at Japan may fall under the definition of self-defense.
In recent days, Japanese leaders have been citing such interpretations. On Monday, Shinzo Abe, Japan's chief cabinet secretary who is widely seen as next to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister in September, suggested Japan should consider whether to pursue the military capabilities needed to launch such an attack against North Korean missile bases.
Experts say they believe Japan could develop the technology relatively quickly or perhaps buy it from the United States. Japan is already working with the United States on systems that would attempt to shoot down missiles after launch.
Echoing statements from Japanese Defense Minister Fukushiro Nukaga on Sunday, Abe told reporters: "If we accept that there is no other option to prevent an attack . . . there is the view that attacking the launch base of the guided missiles is within the constitutional right of self-defense. We need to deepen discussion" of such an option.
Later Monday, however, Koizumi expressed more caution, telling reporters that "I believe Japan must have deterrence capability, but in what form, we would have to listen carefully to experts' opinions since there can be various situations."
After meeting with Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the Bush administration's top envoy on North Korea, Koizumi suggested that Japan was willing to wait and see whether the Chinese delegation visiting North Korea could make progress before pressing for a vote at the United Nations.
"The vice minister of China is going to North Korea to persuade them. Under such circumstances, there is no need to insist on a vote on the 10th" of July, Koizumi said.
Koizumi emphasized that Japan would still seek an early U.N. vote, and would remain opposed to watering down its proposal, which would be binding and impose international restrictions on North Korea's missile trade.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States concurred that China should be given time to press North Korea. The mission holds "some promise, and we would like to let that play out," she said, expressing hope that it would result in resumption of stalled six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program and resumption of a North Korean moratorium on missile launches.
Japan's swift and tough response to the missile tests is in contrast to the caution expressed by South Korea. In addition, the South's relations with Japan have become tense: On the day of the missile tests, the government in Seoul had dispatched a survey ship into disputed waters claimed by both nations despite protests from Tokyo.
South Korea's presidential office on Monday accused Tokyo of "making a fuss" out of the missile tests and said it would go ahead with scheduled ministerial-level talks with North Korean officials Tuesday in the southern city of Pusan.
South Korea also blasted Japan's call to discuss preemptive strike capabilities against North Korea, which, along with the South, endured Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. As South Korea has moved to the political left and enjoyed warm ties with North Korea in recent years, it has joined Pyongyang in decrying what both have called Japan's renewed shift toward militarism.
Referring to Aso's comments, South Korean presidential spokesman Jung Tae Ho said Tuesday in Seoul, "We can't help but watch them intensely as Japan has exposed the nature of its aggressive policy."
Though South Korean officials had threatened to cut off vital humanitarian aid to the North Koreans if they tested missiles, they indicated Monday that such action would not be immediately taken up in the pending discussions.
Staff writers Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.