US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Tokyo yesterday for talks with Japanese officials amid fears North Korea could be readying for a second nuclear test.
Rice was to meet with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso, Defense Agency chief Fumio Kyuma and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki to discuss sanctions against Pyongyang.
Rice was also to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tomorrow before she and Aso fly to Seoul for three-way talks with their South Korean counterpart, Ban Ki-moon.
Of immediate concern was the prospect of North Korea following its Oct. 9 test with a second nuclear detonation, a move that would further heighten tensions.
South Korea urged the North yesterday not to take any action that would conflict with a UN resolution sanctioning Pyongyang for the test.
Rice arrived as Japan is debating how far it can go to join in helping the US military to board and search North Korean ships as allowed under UN Security Council sanctions passed over the weekend.
Japan's pacifist Constitution bans the armed forces from offensive action, and it was unclear whether such searches on the high seas would violate the charter.
The national Yomiuri Shimbun reported yesterday that Japan was expected to offer naval backup for those searches when Rice arrived in Tokyo.
Japan plans to dispatch destroyers, P-3C patrol aircraft and surveillance planes to waters near Japan to search for or pursue suspicious vessels and assist the inspections, the paper said.
Rice was also expected to reassure Tokyo that the US -- which bases some 50,000 troop in Japan -- is committed to the country's defense.
The secretary told reporters accompanying her to Japan that Washington was concerned the North Korean test could spark an arms race in the region, and that it was important to tell US allies Japan and South Korea that Washington's defense umbrella was dependable.
Rice arrives in Asia as the Bush administration begins a diplomatic campaign to rally international support for sanctions. Her biggest challenge will be to get firm assurances from China, worried over the possible collapse of its neighbor, that it will follow through diligently on the UN resolution.
But the overseas edition of the People's Daily -- the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party -- said the North Korean test had "touched China's warning-line," adding that it had increased the common interest among Beijing, Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.
In the analysis piece, the paper also said China could cut off vital food and fuel aid to North Korea if Pyongyang continues to escalate the situation.
Speaking to reporters on her way to Asia, Rice said: "It is our goal to see a de-escalation of this."
She said her mission was intended in part to reassure South Korea and Japan they had no need to develop a nuclear deterrent of their own in response to the North's weapons program.
US officials said that North Korea had moved equipment into a place that may indicate it plans a second nuclear test. NBC television quoted officials as saying the North's military had already informed China.
But South Korea said it was not aware of an imminent test.
"As we understand it, China has not received such a notice. We understand the North has not given notice of such a plan," South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lee Kyu-hyung told reporters.