SLUG: 2-303832 Japan/NKorea (L)
TITLE=JAPAN/NORTH KOREA (L-ONLY)
INTRO: A Japanese official says the country is accelerating preliminary studies of a missile defense system in response to rising tensions with North Korea. Steve Herman reports, the plan appears to be part of a tougher Japanese stance toward Pyongyang.
TEXT: The head of Japan's Defense Agency, Shigeru Ishiba, told a security conference in Singapore Saturday that Japan has decided to accelerate studies of a ballistic missile defense system in response to threats from North Korea.
Mr. Ishiba said such a system would not only be a measure of self-defense, but also a deterrent against new threats.
His comments came amid media reports in Tokyo, quoting unnamed government officials, saying the government hopes to install a U-S-made missile defense system as early as 2006.
Mr. Ishiba called reports that North Korea was reprocessing nuclear materials for possible weapons use "absolutely unacceptable," and said that "tougher measures" would be needed if North Korea continued to escalate the crisis.
Japanese officials have grown increasingly concerned about their ability to defend their nation since North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile over Japan in 1998.
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The North's nuclear and missile programs have contributed to a general worsening of relations between the two countries this year. An attempt to establish full diplomatic ties has also been stalled by questions over the status of five Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents many years ago.
Last October, Pyongyang allowed the five to return to Japan for what was supposed to be a two-week homecoming visit. Instead, Tokyo has refused to allow them to leave, and Pyongyang says Tokyo has broken its promise to send them back to North Korea.
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Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed on Saturday to work together to defuse tensions over North Korea.
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Mr. Koizumi says he was able to win understanding from the Chinese president that Japan and South Korea should be included - with others - in any future talks with North Korea.
Pyongyang has been insisting on discussing its nuclear program only in one-on-one talks with Washington, but did agree to talks in April hosted by Beijing. The Bush administration says all of North Korea's neighbors must be involved in such talks as well.
The Japanese prime minister and Chinese president met in St. Petersburg, where Russian President Vladimir Putin is hosting world leaders as part of celebrations marking the city's 300th anniversary.
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Tensions on the Korean Peninsula escalated last October, when North Korean officials reportedly admitted to a U-S official to having a uranium-enrichment program, in violation of international agreements. Since then, North Korea has expelled U-N nuclear inspectors, and announced that it was re-starting a nuclear reactor. (Signed)
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