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Japan raises first-strike question

Japan has held to a defense-only policy since the end of World War Two.
North Korea

TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) -- A Japanese defense ministry panel has urged that the military be given the capability to launch pre-emptive strikes, a move that would deviate from Japan's long-held defense-only policy, Japanese media said Friday.

The panel will recommend in a report that the military have the weapons necessary to attack foreign enemy facilities, such as ballistic missile launch sites, Kyodo news agency said, quoting sources close to the panel.

The report by the panel, chaired by the defense minister, will serve as a draft in a government overhaul of military strategy to be completed by the end of this year.

The recommendation is expected to spark debate as it would be a move away from Japan's current policy of limiting its military capability to a purely defensive one.

"A pre-emptive strike would go beyond what current government policy and Article Nine of the Constitution allows," said Takehiko Yamamoto, political science professor at Tokyo's Waseda University.

Article Nine of the postwar constitution renounces the right to go to war and forbids a military, although it is interpreted as permitting forces for self-defense.

Japan's present defense policy is to rely on the United States to attack enemies on its behalf and have the Self-Defence Forces (SDF), as its military is known, defend the country.

While the government holds the view it has the right to hit enemy bases, the SDF does not have weapons capable of carrying out such attacks.

Kyodo said the report would suggest that the SDF be equipped with surface-to-surface missiles with a range of several hundred kilometers and with modified anti-ship missiles able to hit targets on land.

Eye on North Korea

The panel's suggestions reflect strong concerns regarding North Korea's missile threat, Kyodo said.

In March 2003, then Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba told parliament it was worth considering boosting Japan's military capabilities so it could strike foreign missile bases.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi rejected the suggestion at the time, but public concerns over North Korea's ballistic missiles remain strong.

North Korea shocked the world when it fired its Taepodong ballistic missile over Japan in 1998, and experts believe it has deployed as many as 200 Rodong missiles, which have a range of about 800 miles (1,300 km), capable of hitting most of Japan.

Last month, Japanese and U.S. officials said there were signs that the secretive communist state was preparing to test-launch a ballistic missile, although they said it did not appear to be imminent.

Analysts said if Japan were to equip its military with an arsenal capable of striking North Korea, it would upset Pyongyang and probably also irritate Beijing.

"It would be seen as a provocation not only to North Korea but also China. China would get upset," said Waseda University's Yamamoto.

He said the idea of giving the SDF such capabilities must be discussed throughly in parliament, not just within defense circles.

Kyodo said the panel will say it is inappropriate for the military to possess such an ability immediately, but did not say if the report mentioned a time frame for achieving such capability.

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