U.S. will protect Japan, Rice says

TOKYO — TOKYO -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered reassurances to Japan that the United States would defend the ally against a nuclear-armed North Korea as Rice began a four-nation tour of the region to respond to North Korea's atomic test.

"The United States has the will and the capability to meet the full range - and I underscore full range - of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan," Rice said, echoing a pledge President Bush made immediately after the North Korean nuclear test.


An assertive Japanese response to North Korea's nascent nuclear capabilities could further disrupt the strategic balance in the region, with fears of Japanese militarism still lingering from World War II.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced after North Korea's nuclear test that Japan would not respond by developing nuclear weapons. Japan, which has a civilian nuclear power program, is believed to have the capability to rapidly develop a weapons effort.


Still, in a sign that North Korea's weapons program might eventually stir a reconsideration of that position, Foreign Minister Taro Aso told a parliamentary committee yesterday that Japan should have a public discussion about a nuclear weapons program, even as he reiterated the government's opposition.

Meanwhile, signs continued yesterday that North Korea might be readying for a second nuclear test that could be carried out this week.

There were reports that North Korea had told China it was ready to conduct up to three more tests. But in Washington, spokesman Tom Casey said the State Department had received no information that another test is imminent.

In Seoul, South Korea, Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon, who has been selected to become the next secretary-general of the United Nations, warned the North not to detonate a second bomb.

"If North Korea conducts an additional test, the response of the international community will be much more serious," he said.

Christopher Hill, the State Department's lead negotiator on North Korea, said on National Public Radio's Morning Edition that there are "some indications" of a possible second test, but he added, "We do not have any indication that it's going to happen imminently."

In Japan, even a public debate on a Japanese nuclear weapons program is a sensitive issue. A Japanese nuclear program would be a source of discomfort for neighboring countries, particularly China, and it is a taboo subject in the only country that has suffered a nuclear attack, the U.S. atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end Word War II.

Since the war, Japan has lived under a pacifist constitution and maintained only a small military self-defense force. A mutual defense treaty obliges the United States to defend Japan against attack and the U.S. maintains bases in Japan.


Rice offered a public confirmation of that after a meeting with Aso.

"Our alliance is one of the most important pillars of peace and stability in this region, and it is stronger than ever, and everyone should know that," she said.

After meeting with Rice, Aso offered another public declaration that Japan would not pursue nuclear weapons.

"The government of Japan has no position at all to consider going nuclear. There is no need to arm ourselves with nuclear weapons," Aso said.

Later, the prime minister said his government would not even discuss a nuclear arms program.

"That debate is finished," Abe told reporters.


Speaking to reporters on her way to Japan, Rice said the North Korean atomic test "does carry with it the potential for instability in the relationships that now exist in the region."

Taiwan also is believed to have the technological capability to rapidly develop nuclear weapons.

In addition to tamping down allies' anxieties, Rice's mission to the region will focus on encouraging China and South Korea to aggressively enforce the sanctions that the United Nations adopted against North Korea in the wake of its nuclear test.

Today, she flies to Seoul for meetings with South Korean leaders, followed by meetings with Chinese leaders a day later in Beijing.

Mike Dorning writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.