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Top US general reaffirms commitment to Japan amid North Korea tensions

[TOKYO] The top US general repeated Washington's "ironclad commitment" to the security of its close Asian ally, Japan, on Friday amid regional tensions over North Korea, telling his counterpart in Tokyo that "an attack on one is an attack on both of us".

US fears about North Korea's missile and nuclear bomb programmes have grown in recent weeks. Pyongyang has said it was considering plans to fire missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guam, although North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to have delayed the decision.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and their Japanese counterparts agreed at a meeting in Washington on Thursday to work more closely on North Korea.

"The most important thing it (the ministers' meeting) did was reaffirm the primacy of our bilateral relationship here in Asia-Pacific," US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Joseph Dunford said at the start of a meeting with the Chief of Staff of Japan's Self-Defence Forces, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano.

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"This is a very important time for security in the region and of course we are mostly focused on the threat coming out of North Korea," Mr Dunford said.

"I think we have made it clear to North Korea and anyone else in the region that an attack on one is an attack on both of us."

Mr Tillerson said in Washington the United States wanted dialogue with Pyongyang, but only if it were meaningful.

"Our effort is to cause them to want to engage in talks but engage in talks with an understanding that these talks will lead to a different conclusion than talks of the past," he said.

In 2005, North Korea reached an agreement with six countries to suspend its nuclear program in return for diplomatic rewards and energy assistance but the deal later collapsed.

Tensions have risen in recent weeks after North Korea conducted two missile tests in July which, like its five atomic bomb tests, were carried out in defiance of international pressure and United Nations resolutions.

US President Donald Trump has vowed not to allow North Korea to develop nuclear missiles that could hit the mainland United States but Pyongyang sees its nuclear arsenal as protection against the United States and its partners in Asia.

Mr Dunford said on Thursday the United States would go ahead with joint military drills next week despite pressure from North Korea and its main ally, China, to halt the contentious exercises that Pyongyang routinely describes as preparation for war.

North Korea has fired missiles and taken other steps in response to the war games in the past.

US President Donald Trump warned North Korea last week it would face "fire and fury" if it threatened the United States, prompting North Korea to say it was considering plans to fire missiles toward Guam.

Both sides have since tempered their rhetoric somewhat.

Japan intends to expand its role in its alliance with Washington "and augment its defence capabilities", while the United States "remains committed to deploying its most advanced capabilities to Japan", the State Department said in a statement.

The Japanese defence ministry wants to introduce a land-based Aegis missile defence system, "Aegis Ashore", to address North Korea's missile threats and has decided to seek funding in the next fiscal year to cover the system design costs, a Japanese defence official told Reuters.

"We will absolutely help and what's most important for ballistic missile defence is that we integrate our capabilities," Mr Dunford said.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono said in Washington Japan would strengthen its defence posture in response to the North Korean threat and provide US$500 million to help boost maritime security in East Asia, where China has been pursuing extensive maritime claims that have angered regional neighbours.

Japan is likely to increase its defence spending at a faster pace in its next five-year plan from April 2019 than the annual 0.8 per cent average rise in its current mid-term plan, the Nikkei business daily reported on Friday.

Defence officials have said such a rise was desirable but finance ministry officials are cautious because of Tokyo's mammoth public debt.

North Korea has repeatedly threatened to target Japan, which hosts around 54,000 US military personnel, as well as South Korea and the United States with its missiles.

North Korean missiles would have to fly over Japan to reach the Guam area, worrying Tokyo that warheads or missile debris could fall on its territory.