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Japan welcomes tough U.S. stand on N. Korea, but worries over armed clash remain

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is taking a harder line against North Korea than the previous occupants of the White House, talking tough and ordering a U.S. Navy carrier group closer to the Korean Peninsula. The government of Japan, which faces the constant threat of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs, has been very supportive of Washington's new tone.

However, should this step-up in deterrent pressure prompt the Kim Jong Un regime to hit back with yet more provocations, this could very well lead to an armed clash between North Korean and U.S. forces. To avoid this risk, the Japanese government is calling on China to soften the North's attitude and prevent tensions from reaching a potentially deadly breaking point.

During an April 9 telephone call, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked Trump about the U.S. president's April 6-7 summit meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Abe then told reporters that he was "keeping a close eye on China's response" to the North Korean situation.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida struck a similar tone after a conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Italy, stating that "China has an important role to play in the North Korean problem." Tillerson added that the April 18 visit to Japan by Vice President Mike Pence for economic talks will also be an excellent opportunity to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.

The Japanese government is especially keen on the need for the U.S. to show it will consider military options to keep North Korea in check. Tokyo had long been frustrated by the Barack Obama administration's "strategic patience" approach of neither speaking with nor applying military pressure on North Korea, as the Kim regime simply used that time to advance its nuclear and missile development. At an April 10 news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters, "We appreciate that the United States has shown its willingness to put all options on the table."

Japan also has high hopes for the threat implied by the recent U.S. cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base, and believes that the risk of an actual armed conflict is low. One senior Foreign Ministry official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "There's a difference between making them (North Korea) think the U.S. may attack, and actually launching an attack." The official added, however, that "it's impossible to predict what North Korea will do, and that's frightening."

Another government source stated, "If North Korea wants to start a war, then it can. If Trump believes that he can silence the North with a quick strike, then Japan as an ally must point out that this situation is different from Syria."

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