Japan economics minister Motegi says North Korea threat has entered new stage

Japan's Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi speaks at a news conference in Tokyo, Japan on Aug 3, 2017.
Japan's Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi speaks at a news conference in Tokyo, Japan on Aug 3, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japanese Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said on Tuesday (Aug 15) that the threat posed by North Korea has entered a new stage and that Japan wants to work with the United States and other relevant countries to respond.

Motegi, speaking to reporters, said he wants to monitor the situation in case of any impact on Japan's economy.

He also said he declined to comment on any financial market moves related to North Korean tensions.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday pledged the government's utmost efforts to ensure the safety of residents in four western Japan prefectures over which North Korea recently warned its missiles could fly en route to waters off the US territory of Guam, reported Japanese media.

Accepting a written request from Shimane Governor Zembee Mizoguchi urging the central government to take full measures, Abe said at his office in Tokyo: "We will do our utmost (for possible North Korean missiles) not to cause any harm to people."

Abe also stressed that the government is seeking to put more pressure on North Korea to stop its ballistic-missile firing, in cooperation with the United States and South Korea, as well as China and Russia.

"It's important to have North Korea forgo such an intolerable act," he said.

Japan has deployed missile interceptor batteries along the path that North Korean ballistic missiles would fly if the isolated country goes ahead with its threat to fire the missiles toward Guam, which hosts key US military facilities.

Japanese media said the Self-Defence Force Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile interceptors have been deployed in Shimane, Hiroshima and Kochi prefectures, which North Korea said its missiles would fly over, as well as Ehime prefecture, located between Hiroshima and Kochi. PAC-3 systems are not regularly stationed in those four prefectures, said Kyodo news agency.

The government has also deployed in the Sea of Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force Aegis destroyers, which can shoot down airborne missiles. The PAC-3 system is aimed at countering missiles that evade Aegis interceptors.

In 2009, a North Korean rocket passed over Japanese territory without incident, triggering Japan's immediate denouncement.

Japan's defence chief and foreign minister will meet their US counterparts on Thursday to reaffirm Washington's commitment to defending Japan, including the use of its nuclear deterrent, as threats from North Korea intensify.

Japan's Minister of Defence, Itsunori Onodera, and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Taro Kono, travel to the US capital this week for "two-plus-two" meetings with US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Japanese government announced on Tuesday (Aug 15).

The meetings come with tensions high in East Asia, with North Korea threatening to fire missiles into the waters close to the US Pacific territory of Guam. The missiles would have to fly over Japan to reach their target, worrying Tokyo that warheads or missile debris could fall on its territory.

US President Donald Trump has warned of "fire and fury" if North Korea threatens the United States, and said the US military is "locked and loaded".

"The strategic environment is becoming harsher and we need to discuss how we will respond to that," a Japanese foreign ministry official said in a briefing in Tokyo.

"We will look for the US to reaffirm its defence commitment, including the nuclear deterrent," he added.

Under Japan's alliance treaty with the United States, Washington has pledged to defend Japan. It has put Japan under its nuclear umbrella, meaning it could respond to any attack on Japan with atomic weapons.

A renewed commitment by Washington to that promise would reassure Tokyo as it looks to bolster its defences against possible North Korean military action.