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Japan Mulls Widening Limited Military Capabilities - 2003-03-30

Top Japanese government officials are discussing whether to increase the country's constitutionally limited military capability. The increasingly public debate is being sparked by fears of North Korean military development. In recent days, Japan's hawkish defense agency Director General Shigeru Ishiba has suggested the country might want to destroy foreign missile-launch sites, if it appeared an attack on Japan were imminent.

The comments, hinting at Japan acquiring an offensive military capability, echo comments he made last month that Tokyo might consider a pre-emptive strike on North Korea. Mr. Ishiba quickly backed away from those comments, but Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said a more assertive military posture is worth looking at.

Appearing on a Fuji network television program, Mr. Abe was quick to add that such discussions should bear in mind Japan's pacifist constitution.

Speaking in Parliament on Friday, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said his government has no intention of acquiring the military capability to launch pre-emptive attacks against another nation.

The prime minister said that, under the defense alliance with the United States, American forces based in Japan would respond to any attack.

Although Japan has one of the world's largest military budgets, it does not have aircraft with ground attack capability, nor guided missiles to attack foreign military facilities.

Concern is growing about North Korea's missile programs and its suspected nuclear weapons development.

A survey released this weekend by Japan's cabinet office says that 80 percent of respondents believe it is either "very likely" or "possible" that Japan could eventually be drawn into a war.

This is a substantial increase over the 64 percent who gave similar answers in a poll three years ago. This year, three-quarters of those surveyed expressed concern specifically about North Korea.

The poll also found that 16 percent of Japanese want the nation's self-defense forces expanded. But nearly 62 percent said the country's military force should be kept as it is.

Japan, on Friday, launched its first spy satellites, which analysts say are primarily intended to keep an eye on North Korea. In Pyongyang, the foreign ministry, quoted by the country's central news agency, has called the satellite deployments a hostile act.

The North Koreans recently test-fired two short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, heightening tensions in the region.