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Japan urged to promise backup to U.S. in regional war; Guidelines signed in 1997 await parliamentary vote


TOKYO -- Amid rising political tensions on the Korean peninsula, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen urged Japanese leaders yesterday to get parliament moving on guidelines enabling Japan to back up the United States in military conflicts in the region.

But long-stalled action on the guidelines -- which were signed by the two countries in September 1997 but still require approval by parliament -- is elusive.

Japan's "peace constitution" contains a clause renouncing war, although the country maintains the Self-Defense Forces for "exclusively defensive" purposes.

The guidelines call for Japan to help the United States during any war in the Asia-Pacific region in ways such as providing water and fuel and allowing U.S. planes to land at its civilian airports.

Cohen's pleas to senior Japanese leaders came nearly five months after North Korea launched a rocket that flew over Japan. The rogue nation is also believed to be building an underground nuclear weapons facility that the United States wants to inspect. At one point, North Korea demanded $300 million for access.

Clearly, that incident added momentum to Cohen's nudging.

"That one missile played a big role," said John Neuffer, a political analyst at Mitsui Marine Research Institute, a Tokyo think tank.

"They didn't want to be stuck with legislation to implement guidelines with a crisis breaking out on the Korean peninsula.

"U.S. government officials want as many [Japanese political] parties signing on to the guidelines as possible. They don't want grudging approval. They want it to look like a strong mandate to move forward."

In addition to Cohen's lobbying for the guidelines, jostling among Japan's political parties is likely to spur action on the issue, several government officials said. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which supports the guidelines, forged a coalition yesterday with the relatively small Liberal Party led by LDP defector Ichiro Ozawa.

Ozawa, a reform-minded politician whose ideas in the past have been championed by the United States, has long supported Japan taking a stronger position in international peacekeeping.

Although Ozawa's Liberal Party is very small, with just 50 of the 752 seats in parliament, those votes will bring the ruling party closer to a majority in the Upper House; it already has a majority in the Lower House.

In forming the coalition, the two parties compromised on the issue of participation in peacekeeping operations, but only those that don't involve "military action."

Nevertheless, it is far from a done deal: They are still quibbling about the definition of "military action."

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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