updated 12/19/2003 10:22:31 AM ET 2003-12-19T15:22:31

Japan announced Friday that it will begin building a missile defense system — the first step of long-discussed plans to protect the country amid concerns over the threat from neighboring North Korea.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Cabinet and his top security advisers approved the project, citing “a spread of missiles and a rise in weapons of mass destruction,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said in a statement.

“Ballistic missile defense is a purely defensive — and the sole — means of protecting the lives of our country’s people and their property against a ballistic missile attack,” the statement said.

Japan has studied the technology for missile defense with the United States, but until now it has only mulled plans to build such a system.

Fukuda did not explain details of the program. Media reports said the plan calls for refitting four Aegis-equipped destroyers with sea-based anti-missile rockets and purchasing advanced Patriot anti-missile rocket batteries starting next year. The new system will be deployed from 2007 through 2011, Kyodo News reported.

The government will allocate $935 million for the program in the next fiscal year beginning April. The entire program was estimated at $4.67 billion, the agency said.

Less-than-perfect success rate
The project will not fully shield Japan from incoming missiles, however. Analysts say the sea-based and Patriot missiles have less-than-perfect success rates for shooting down projectiles. Their limited number also means they cannot provide cover for the entire country.

Japan has become increasingly concerned with being able to protect itself against incoming missiles after North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile over its main island in 1998.

Trying to allay concerns among China and other neighbors that the system could signal a move by Japan toward building greater military power, Fukuda stressed missile defense was not offensive in nature and wouldn’t be a menace to others.

“It will not threaten neighboring countries, and will not have a detrimental effect on the region’s stability,” Fukuda said. He added it would not violate Japanese laws against defending other nations, since the system would be used exclusively by Japan for its own protection.

'New threats' prompt reorganization
To further counter what it called “new threats” of missiles, weapons of mass destruction, and international terrorism, Koizumi’s Cabinet separately called for reorganizing the military into a more flexible and mobile force.

And in recognition of the rising importance of international peacekeeping and humanitarian missions to the Self-Defense Forces, the Cabinet instructed the Defense Agency to develop a special unit to carry out such duties.

Starting with a peacekeeping mission to Cambodia, and following with undertakings in East Timor and elsewhere, Japan’s military has played a growing role in international campaigns.

On Friday, Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba ordered air, naval, and ground troops to prepare for deployment to restore water services and rebuild infrastructure in southern Iraq. He is expected to send around 1,000 soldiers to Iraq next year.

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