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Japan urges pressure on North Korea, military to seek record defense spending

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s new foreign minister Taro Kono said on Tuesday international pressure against North Korea must be maintained until Pyongyang clearly demonstrates that it will give up its nuclear program.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono speaks during the ASEAN-Japan Ministerial Meeting of the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting (AMM) and Related Meetings in Manila, Philippines August 6, 2017. REUTERS/Rolex Dela Pena/Pool

Japan’s military is set to ask for record defense spending of 5.26 trillion yen ($48.12 billion) for the year starting April 1, as it upgrades ballistic missile defenses against possible North Korean military action, according to a draft document seen by Reuters.

Fears about North Korea’s missile and nuclear development have grown in recent weeks as Pyongyang in July launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and said this month it was considering plans to fire missiles toward the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

While the North later said it was holding off firing toward Guam, regional tension remains high.

“Instead of going straight to dialogue, we need to keep on putting pressure on North Korea until the North clearly demonstrates its intention and action for moving toward (denuclearisation),” Kono said in an interview with a group of reporters.

“It’s not the time to discuss (the resumption of) six-party talks,” Kono said.

Six-party talks, which were aimed at denuclearising the Korean peninsula and involved North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia, collapsed in 2008 following a rocket launch by the North.

Kono, who replaced Fumio Kishida as foreign minister in a cabinet reshuffle this month, stressed the importance of implementing fully the existing U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

“There appears to be various loopholes (in the sanctions). These loopholes need to be carefully plugged one by one.”

Japan’s Ministry of Defense will request a 2.5 percent hike in defense spending, way above forecasts, according to the a defense paper, which if approved it will be the sixth straight annual increase as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bolsters his nation’s military.

A chunk of the money will be used to purchase the first batch of SM-3 Block IIA missiles, which are designed to hit warheads in space before they plunge to their targets, a Japanese government sources said.

The new munition has more than double the range of missiles currently loaded on Japan’s ballistic missile defense destroyers in the Sea of Japan.

“Any easing in defense spending increases would send the wrong message to North Korea and China,” the source said, asking not to be identified because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Other spending in the proposed Japanese defense budget includes 88.1 billion yen for six more F-35 stealth fighters, 70 billion yen for a new submarine and 100 billion for two compact warships that will reinforce Japan’s navy in the East China Sea where it faces growing Chinese naval power, he added.

The proposed budget, however, may be pared back by Ministry of Finance officials who must juggle growing outlays on health and social spending as the nation’s population ages.

A five-year government defense plan that runs until the end of March 2019 stipulates that annual defense budget increases, minus spending to maintain U.S. military bases, should be limited to 0.8 percent. Japan over the past four years has largely stuck to that rate of increase.

Editing by Michael Perry