The United States and Japan have taken steps in recent days to move forward with plans to bolster Japan's missile defense, amid growing concern North Korea may launch a long-range test missile. But officials say the steps are part of a process started last year.
Defense Department officials say reports of agreement on the deployment of Patriot anti-missile missiles in Japan are related to an agreement reached May 1. The officials say, last week, the United States informed Japan of the proposed details of the deployment, and they are now awaiting Japan's approval. They will not say how many Patriot batteries will be deployed, nor exactly where or when. Japanese news reports say there will be three or four batteries, and several hundred U.S. troops will be sent to Japan to operate them.
Meanwhile, White House spokesman Tony Snow said Monday that the United States and Japan have exchanged notes agreeing to the procedures for developing a longer-range interceptor missile for deployment in Japan.
"The U.S. and Japan do, in fact, have a vigorous program of missile defense cooperation," he said. "Last week's agreement was not a response to any specific threat, although it is part of a program designed to meet the longstanding North Korean threat."
Senior officials agreed to begin developing the new interceptor last October, and officials say the process could take years. The new missile will be similar to one tested last week off the coast of Hawaii as part of the fledgling U.S. missile defense program. Experts say it is that type of missile that could respond to a North Korean attack on Japan, not the Patriots, which are designed to intercept shorter-range missiles.
President Bush was also asked about the possible North Korean missile launch on Monday.
"I have said that the North Koreas should notify the world of their intentions, what they have on top of that vehicle and what are their intentions," he said.
The president said he has not received any answer from North Korea, and that he is continuing to work with U.S. allies to ensure that the government in Pyongyang gets the message that any missile launch would be widely seen as "provocative."
Shortly afterwards, the president's spokesman, Tony Snow, had a message for North Korean leaders.
"Come to the six-party talks. Why? Because you've got a unified front involving your neighbors plus the United States, and let's figure out a way to resolve the nuclear issues regarding North Korea," he said.
The spokesman said, if North Korea wants direct talks with the United States, that can happen, but only in conjunction with the resumption of the six-party talks, and not under the threat of a missile launch. The six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, involving Pyongyang, the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, have been stalled since November.