updated 6/26/2006 7:45:44 AM ET 2006-06-26T11:45:44

Japan and the United States, facing North Korea’s apparent plans to test-launch a ballistic missile, have agreed to deploy advanced Patriot interceptor missiles on American bases in Japan for the first time, officials said Monday.

The U.S. plans to deploy the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles — designed to intercept ballistic missiles, cruise missiles or aircraft — as soon as possible, a Japanese Defense Agency spokeswoman.

The spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with agency policy, said the sites and exact timing for the deployment have not yet been decided.

The plan was first reported Monday in Japan’s largest newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun. It said the U.S. military would deploy three or four batteries of the surface-to-air missiles on the southern island of Okinawa by the end of the year and send 500-600 additional U.S. troops there.

Up to 16 missiles can fit in a single PAC-3 battery, according to the system’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Corp.

The plan was proposed by U.S. officials during a June 17 meeting in Hawaii, the newspaper said.

Japan and the U.S. signed an agreement in 2005 allowing Japan to produce PAC-3 missiles for deployment during fiscal 2006 at Japanese bases. But the deployment plans for Okinawa are apparently separate from that deal.

N. Korea missile test?
Recent intelligence reports indicate North Korea may be preparing to test-fire a Taepodong-2, one of its most advanced missiles believed capable of reaching parts of the U.S.

The North had maintained a self-imposed moratorium on such launches since 1999. The United States, Japan and other countries have urged North Korea to halt any plans to test the missile, while Pyongyang has insisted it has the right to do so if it chooses.

It was unclear whether the PAC-3 would be effective in the current standoff. The PAC-3 is aimed at complementing the Standard Missile-3 installed on vessels equipped with an Aegis radar system. But PAC-3, a medium- to long-range interceptor, may be unable to shoot down long-range missiles such as Taepodong-2, Yomiuri reported.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was traveling Monday evening to Beijing on a two-day visit to seek China’s cooperation in halting any North Korean launch.

China is the North’s key ally and is believed able to exert the most influence on Pyongyang. Beijing has also hosted international talks on the North’s nuclear program, which haven’t convened since November amid a North Korean boycott in anger over U.S. financial restrictions.

Missile-detecting radar
The concerns over a possible North Korean launch have prompted the U.S. to move up its planned test of a missile-detecting radar system in northern Japan, Kyodo News agency reported, citing an unidentified U.S. official in Washington.

A test run of the high-resolution radar, capable of detecting incoming missiles, was initially scheduled to begin weeks later. However, Kyodo said testing could start as early as Monday.

Japanese Defense Facilities Administration Agency, in charge of U.S. military bases in Japan, said the report could not be immediately confirmed.

The so-called X-Band radar had been transferred from a U.S. base in Japan to the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force’s Shariki base at Tsugaru, in the country’s north. Tsugaru is 360 miles northeast of Tokyo.

The radar deployment is part of the joint missile defense project, which began after North Korea fired a missile, part of which flew over Japan, in 1998.

Tokyo and Washington on Friday also signed an agreement to expand their cooperation on a joint ballistic missile defense shield, committing themselves to joint production of interceptor missiles.

The agreement had been previously negotiated and did not result from emerging fears of a possible North Korean missile test, officials said.

There has been speculation that the U.S. could try to intercept the missile if it is fired.

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