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Japanese PM Promises a More Assertive Foreign Policy

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says Japan will pursue a more assertive foreign policy, and will tighten its cooperation with Washington on a wide range of security and military issues. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul on the regional implications of Japan's new direction.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters Thursday that Japan's security situation had changed "drastically" in recent months.

He said the main reasons for that change are the "proliferation" of missiles and weapons of mass destruction, and a series of regional conflicts.

Mr. Abe says to protect Japan's peace, independence, freedom and democracy, and to protect the lives of the Japanese people, it becomes ever more important that Tokyo strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Mr. Abe also says he will try to make good this year on a previous pledge to reform Japan's pacifist constitution, which severely restricts the Japanese military from any activities other than homeland defense.

The Japanese-U.S. alliance dates back to the Cold War, and was originally aimed at defending against the Soviet Union, but one of the more pressing concerns today is the potential threat from North Korea - a concern that was highlighted by Pyongyang's provocative actions in 2006.

Last July, North Korea tested a series of missiles, including a long-range missile theoretically capable of reaching the United States. North Korea had already sent a missile on a test flight over Japan in 1998.

In October, Pyongyang conducted its first test of a nuclear device. Japan responded with strong sanctions against the North, and some Japanese politicians have even called for a debate on whether Japan - the only nation ever to suffer a nuclear attack - should build its own nuclear arsenal.

That is considered unlikely, but Steven Reed, a political science expert at Tokyo's Chuo University, says North Korea's actions have made it easier for members of Mr. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party to discuss such previously taboo security issues.

"There are people inside the LDP who now feel free to talk about this thing, in large part because it's not going to lose them votes any more. It used to be a matter that would pretty much clearly lose them votes in a hurry," said Reed.

Japan's pacifist constitution was forced on it by the U.S. occupation following World War II. The document allows only for a "self-defense force," but the military's role has slowly been expanded. The Japanese military, for example, has troops in Iraq providing logistical support for the U.S.-led coalition.

Mr. Abe has previously said that he hoped to revise the constitution to allow the military more freedom once he took office.

Japan's Kyodo News Agency reported Thursday that U.S. and Japanese defense officials are planning to discuss broader military cooperation in the event of North Korean aggression against Japan, or of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, has often threatened to retake the island by force. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman responded to the Kyodo report Thursday by saying Beijing hopes all nations will continue to adhere to the so-called "One China" principle, which holds that China and Taiwan are one nation.