U.S. and Japanese officials have agreed to increase regional military cooperation in wake of increased aggressive acts by North Korea.
The top U.S. military officer says he has "a real sense of urgency" about the need for Washington, Tokyo and Seoul to enhance security cooperation to deter North Korea.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the comment after talks in Tokyo Thursday with Japanese defense officials. They agreed to increase security cooperation with South Korea.
Washington has held military maneuvers with its two key Asia allies and begun an intensive round of diplomacy since last month when North Korea shelled a South Korean island near a disputed maritime boundary.
Professor Hiro Katsumata at Tokyo's Waseda University says three-way military cooperation has quietly been going on since the mid-1990's when it emerged that North Korea likely possessed a nuclear bomb.
However, Katsumata contends the latest crisis does not mean that Tokyo, Seoul and Washington are forming a comprehensive, long-standing tripartite alliance.
"The only purpose of this partnership is to deal with the issue of North Korea," he said. "It is not a partnership to deal with the rise of China, not for terrorism, not for piracy/maritime security and certainly not for the promotion of democracy and so on."
The professor says, however, Japan needs a strong working relationship with South Korea - despite the historical animosity between the two.
"For Japan, partnership with South Korea is extremely important. Perhaps Japan needs South Korea more than South Korea needs Japan," added Katsumata. "When something happens on the Korean peninsula, one of the major tasks for the Japanese government is to evacuate the Japanese people. Many of them, businesspeople, work in Seoul and [elsewhere in] South Korea."
However, Japanese news reports quoted officials as saying it is premature to commit to military training with the United States and South Korea.
Japan has been reluctant to take part in multi-national military exercises not directly related to its defense. The constitution limits the use of its military if Japan is not under attack.
Admiral Mullen in Tokyo repeated earlier comments on China's responsibility to use its influence on North Korea.
Mullen said Northeast Asia is more volatile than it has been for much of the last half century, in great part due to the "reckless behavior of the North Korean regime, enabled by their friends in China."
North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il held talks in Pyongyang on Thursday with a senior Chinese official. The North's official news agency says Dai Bingguo carried a message from the Chinese president.
Beijing wants emergency multi-national talks to defuse the tension. Washington, Seoul and Tokyo rejected the idea, saying Pyongyang should not be rewarded with negotiations for carrying out aggressive attacks.
North Korea, on Thursday repeated its contention that South Korea started the artillery fire last month. It says Pyongyang took action in response to the South firing "thousands of shells into the territorial waters" of North Korea. Seoul, however, says its troops fired guns on a training exercise within its territorial waters.
North Korea also is blamed for the sinking in March of a South Korean naval vessel. Pyongyang denies firing the torpedo that sank the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.