updated 6/23/2006 9:53:56 AM ET 2006-06-23T13:53:56

Japan and the United States signed an agreement Friday to expand their cooperation on a joint ballistic missile defense shield, the Japanese foreign ministry announced.

The pact, signed by Foreign Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer, commits them to joint production of missiles to intercept incoming missiles, the ministry said in a statement.

The agreement was negotiated prior to the current fears that North Korea is preparing to test a long-range missile. But its takes on significance amid speculation that the United States could try to intercept the missile if it is fired.

The pact allows the transfer of ballistic missile defense technology from Japan to the United States — a touchy issue in Japan, which has long adhered to a self-imposed ban on arms exports in line with the spirit of its pacifist constitution.

“The two countries have been negotiating for some time,” said Foreign Ministry official Saori Nagahara.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe announced in December 2005 that Japan would jointly begin research on a missile shield with the U.S.

The new agreement updates a November 1983 pact on arms transfers and a December 2004 missile defense cooperation arrangement.

Nagahara said that the two governments have not decided when they will begin production of interceptor missiles, but that the development phase is expected to take about nine years.

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