US, Japan step up defence cooperation to counter North Korea

WASHINGTON: The United States and Japan will step up their defence cooperation to deal with the threat from nuclear-armed North Korea as tensions in East Asia remain high, officials from the two allies said on Thursday.

“For this threat of North Korea, at this meeting we agreed to increase the pressure and to strengthen the alliance capability,” Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said after talks with senior U.S. officials in Washington.

U.S. fears about North Korea’s missile and nuclear bomb programs have grown in recent weeks. Pyongyang has said it was considering plans to fire missiles 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 North Korea.

“In light of the threat of North Korea, the four of us confirmed the importance of the unwavering U.S. commitment to extended deterrence,” Onodera said.

Tillerson said the United States wanted dialogue with Pyongyang, but only if it were 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.

U.S. President Donald 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 at the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

Both sides have since dialled back the rhetoric somewhat.

Interactive package on North Korea’s missile capabilities – http://tmsnrt.rs/2t0oSv7

JAPAN WORRIED

Japan intends to expand its role in its alliance with Washington “and augment its defence capabilities” while the United States “remains committed to deploying its most advanced capabilities to Japan,” the State Department said in a statement.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Japan would strengthen its defence posture in response to the North Korean threat and provide US$500 million (£388.3 million) to help boost maritime security in East Asia, where China has been pursuing extensive maritime claims.

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

North Korean missiles headed for the Guam area would have to fly over Japan to reach their target, worrying Tokyo that warheads or missile debris could fall on its territory.

The United States and South Korea will go ahead with joint military drills next week, the top U.S. military official said on Thursday, resisting pressure from North Korea and its ally China to halt the contentious exercises.

The drills involving tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops are due to begin on Monday. North Korea views such exercises as preparations to invade it.

The exercises have taken on greater significance this year due to the rise in tensions around North Korea’s rapid progress in developing nuclear weapons and missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, has urged the United States and South Korea to scrap the drills in exchange for North Korea calling a halt to its weapons programs.

Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the exercises were “not currently on the table as part of the negotiation at any level”. The annual drill, known as Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, takes place in South Korea. Much of it involves computer-based simulations.

Dunford said the U.S. military and its allies needed to stay ready.

“My advice to our leadership is that we not dial back our exercises. The exercises are very important to maintaining the ability of the alliance to defend itself,” Dunford told reporters in Beijing after meeting his Chinese counterparts.

“As long as the threat in North Korea exists, we need to maintain a high state of readiness to respond to that threat,” he said.

Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission, told Dunford that China believed the only effective way to resolve the issue was through talks.

“China believes that dialogue and consultations are the only effective avenue to resolve the peninsula issue, and that military means cannot become an option,” China’s Defence Ministry cited Fan as saying.

North Korea has in the past fired missiles and taken other steps in response to U.S. and South Korean exercises.

Easing tensions this week, North Korean media announced that Kim delayed a decision on firing four missiles towards Guam, home to a U.S. air base and Navy facility. Trump welcomed the delay as “very wise.”

But North Korea released propaganda posters on Thursday boasting that the U.S. mainland “is within our strike range!” and condemning United Nations sanctions over its recent missile tests.

Graphic on North Korean missile trajectories, ranges – http://tmsnrt.rs/2hIzZHG

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, David Alexander, MohammmadZargham and Makini Brice in Washington, Michael Martina, Philip Wen, Christian Shepherd and Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Christine Kim in Seoul; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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