WASHINGTON • The United States government has approved the sale of anti-ballistic missiles to Japan to defend itself against a growing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea.
News of the sale came on Tuesday as North and South Korea held their first talks in more than two years aimed at solving the crisis over the North's nuclear missile programme.
The deal follows a year of ramped-up North Korean missile launches, some of them over Japanese territory, and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.
These actions have prompted a stepped-up US-led campaign to toughen United Nations sanctions, which Pyongyang has called an act of war.
The State Department on Tuesday asked Congress to approve the US$133 million (S$177 million) sale of the four missiles and related hardware, which can be launched from destroyers at sea or from a land-based system.
The sale of the anti-ballistic missiles follows through "on President (Donald) Trump's commitment to provide additional defensive capabilities to treaty allies threatened by the DPRK's provocative behaviour", a State Department official said, using the initials for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Japan formally decided last month it would expand its ballistic missile defence system with US-made ground-based Aegis radar stations and interceptors.
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Japanese Minister of Defence Itsunori Onodera, in a phone call on Monday, "condemned North Korea's reckless and unlawful behaviour", according to a Pentagon statement.
The day-long inter-Korean talks on Tuesday culminated in a joint statement in which the two sides agreed to hold multiple talks, including between military officials from both sides. Pyongyang also said it would send a large delegation to next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea, to the delight of the government of dovish South Korean leader Moon Jae In.
The US State Department applauded the talks. "Clearly, this is a positive development," said State Department spokesman Steve Goldstein. "We would like nuclear talks to occur; we want denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. This is a good first step in that process."
China, Japan and Russia also welcomed the agreement as a positive step.
Seoul will have to move carefully to avoid alienating the Trump administration, which has been leading a campaign of "maximum pressure" to force North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programmes.
The Winter Games present North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with an ideal opportunity to throw a wrench in Mr Trump's threats of military action if the North does not agree to give up its nuclear programme, analysts say.
Along the way, Mr Kim is looking to get some relief from sanctions that are beginning to bite, and to bring China back to its traditional position - that no one should disturb the status quo, even if that means tolerating a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons.
"This was a very smart move and underscores how we are in a longstanding habit of underestimating the North," said Dr Nicholas Eberstadt, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute who has spent decades studying North Korea.
"If they can punch a hole through the maximum-pressure coalition and it starts to leak, it gives them more room and more time to achieve their objective, which is all about the nuclear programme."