TOKYO—Japan told visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday that it has no plans to develop its own nuclear weapons, as Asian countries watched North Korea for signs that it's considering further nuclear tests.
Rice arrived in Tokyo, the first stop of a four-nation tour, to reaffirm in person the United States' long-standing commitment to Japan's defense and snuff out any trend toward a regional arms race.
Since North Korea's Oct. 9 nuclear test, some Japanese politicians have asked openly whether the country should take another look at its own prohibition against nuclear weapons.
But Foreign Minister Taro Aso said after talks with Rice: "As far as Japan is concerned, we, the government of Japan, have no position at all to consider going nuclear."
Rice, at a brief news conference with Aso, warned North Korea that the United States will come to Japan's defense if necessary.
"The United States has the will and capability to meet the full range—and I underscore, full range—of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan," Rice said.
She was to meet Thursday with new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for talks that include how to enforce U.N. sanctions that call for inspecting North Korean cargo.
Japan sees itself as a potential North Korean target and has announced its own unilateral sanctions, including a ban on ship visits and trade imports.
Still, Aso emphasized diplomacy, saying, "We intend to keep the door open to dialogue at all times."
Rice agreed, saying the United States didn't want to escalate the crisis.
News reports this week have said that U.S. intelligence agencies have detected additional activity around North Korea's underground nuclear-test site, although it isn't known whether a second test is imminent.
The United States is committed to defending Japan under a 1960 mutual security treaty.
Discussion of nuclear weapons is a sensitive topic in Japan, the only nation that has been attacked with them. Still, Japan has an extensive supply of plutonium for its civilian nuclear-power industry, and experts think it could develop nuclear arms in years, if not months, if it chose to.
On Sunday, the policy chief of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Shoichi Nakagawa, said in a televised interview that Japan's Constitution didn't rule out the option of possessing nuclear arms.
"There could be an argument that possession of nuclear weapons diminished the likelihood of being attacked, as we could fight back in such an event," he said. "There can be discussions, of course."
While Nakagawa later softened his remarks, they provoked a backlash.
Tetsuo Saito, of the New Komei Party, the Liberal Democratic Party's coalition partner, said: "We will never possess nuclear arms. We should not even discuss the matter, as it causes concerns to the world."
Regarding the U.N. sanctions, Rice assured the Japanese that they aren't meant to be "a blockade or a quarantine" on North Korea. They include a ban on exporting or importing nuclear- and missile-related materials, heavy conventional armaments and luxury goods.
Japanese officials and aides to Rice were discussing procedures for inspecting North Korean ships carrying suspicious cargo.
Yomiuri Shimbun, a leading Tokyo daily newspaper, reported Wednesday that Japan would tell Rice that its Maritime Self-Defense Forces will cooperate in ship inspections.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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