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Japan to boost diplomacy, defense to face N. Korea threat in 2018: Abe

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen at a New Year press conference in Ise, Mie Prefecture, on Jan. 4, 2018. (Mainichi)

ISE, Japan (Kyodo) -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed Thursday to work with the international community and strengthen Japan's defense capabilities this year in the face of North Korea's nuclear and missile development.

"We will go forth with resolute diplomacy in order to make North Korea change its policies," Abe said at a New Year press conference in Ise in Mie Prefecture, central Japan, after visiting the Ise Grand Shrine in the city earlier in the day.

Calling the security situation enveloping Japan the most severe in the post-World War II era, Abe said his administration will "strive to strengthen our defenses, not just as an extension of existing (practices) but in the way that is truly necessary to protect the citizens."

Last year North Korea launched three intercontinental ballistic missiles and more than 15 other ballistic missiles, including some that flew over mainland Japan into the Pacific Ocean. The North also carried out its most powerful nuclear test to date.

Noting that recent U.N. sanctions have taken aim at the supply of oil products to North Korea, Abe said he will watch closely the effects of the sanctions on North Korea as the cold winter weather intensifies this month and next month.

The Abe administration has advocated putting pressure on Pyongyang through ever tougher sanctions and refusing to hold direct dialogue until it commits to giving up its nuclear program.

Abe also said he hopes the year will bring progress in the debate toward a first-ever revision to the postwar Japanese Constitution, a document he and his Liberal Democratic Party have long sought to amend.

"I want to make this a year in which we present to the public the shape the Constitution should take, and further deepen the debate toward constitutional reform," Abe said.

"The Constitution's basic principles will not change, but it's natural that we debate it in accordance with the changing times," he said.

But Abe refrained from setting out a particular timeline for the reform process, emphasizing that debate should first take place within each political party and then within constitutional commissions in both houses of the Diet.

After deliberation by these commissions, an amendment proposal would need to win the approval of at least two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House of Representatives and House of Councillors before going to the public in a nationwide referendum, where it would need to win a simple majority.

The LDP is looking to deliver its amendment ideas to the commissions during the next 150-day ordinary Diet session set to begin on Jan. 22.

It promised in October's general election to include in the debate the idea of adding an explicit clause on the status of Japan's Self-Defense Forces to the Constitution, which currently does not mention them at all.

The Constitution, by which Japan renounces war and the maintenance of the potential to wage war, came into effect in 1947.

Abe is widely expected to run for re-election as LDP president in the party's leadership race in September.

Asked if he will seek a third term, Abe said he will think about it based on what happens in the next Diet session.

After the party changed its internal rules last year to allow three-term presidents, re-election in September could see Abe lead the party until 2021. He will become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history if he stays on until November next year.

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