JAPANESE officials have muttered barely a word about North Korea's new experimental missile, called "Rodong-1," but their actions speak louder than their few syllables.
North Korea's test launch of the new missile in the Sea of Japan last May revealed a surprising accuracy in aim, a capacity for carrying large weapons, and a range that can reach most of Japan. It was closely monitored by Japanese naval vessels.
The threat of the Rodong-1, combined with Pyongyang's belligerent attitude toward Tokyo and Japanese suspicions that North Korea is building a nuclear bomb, have revived historical concerns here of Korea being "like a knife aimed at our back."
The unexpected technological prowess of the communist regime in North Korea has led Tokyo officials to seek help from the United States and to rethink their stance of never making a nuclear device of their own.
Japan and the United States will begin talks next month on transferring the technology of a new US antimissile system known as a "theater missile defense system."
Since 1987, Japan has had only a Patriot antimissile system that is capable of defending against the Scud missiles that North Korea obtained from the former Soviet Union. But the Patriot is inadequate in stopping the Rodong, which can travel an estimated 625 miles.
The talks will deal with the difficult political task of how much technology the US should share with Japan. "We both have com-mon interests and a lot of work to do," says Frank Wisner, US undersecretary for policy. "There is ample room for cooperation."
He calls the Rodong "a very dangerous missile" that is "uncalled for and destabilizing" to the Northeast Asian region and adds that North Korea's nuclear program and the development of the Rodong are "not unrelated."
The missile "adds to the concern that North Korea is in the business of being a creator of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems," he says.
Japan's defense agency is also expected to go ahead with the purchase of two Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) airplanes from the US. The purchase of these high-tech surveillance planes was delayed two years ago when Japan balked at the high prices being demanded for the planes. Japanese reversal
But the Rodong threat changed minds quickly about using AWACS. "We are gravely concerned," says Masataka Suzuki, defense agency counselor, adding that "the Korean Peninsula is one region in the world with the highest tension today."
The US, too, sees a threat in the Rodong, especially if North Korea sells it to anti-US nations in the Middle East. "With this missile, North Korea could reach Japan; Iran could reach Israel; and Libya could reach US bases and allied capitals in the Mediterranean region," Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey told Congress last week.
Iran's air force commander, Mansur Satari, visited North Korea on July 29, and held talks with Choe Kwang, chief of the general staff of North Korean People's Army, according to North Korean press reports.
After the Rodong test, Japan also hesitated in endorsing an extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) when it comes up for renewal in 1995.
The 1970 treaty, signed by 156 countries including Japan, is an attempt to keep nuclear-weapons capability out of the hands of countries other than those that already have them.
At the summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations in Tokyo last month, Japan was able to water down language in the final communique that would have strongly supported the NPT's extension. Country's options
Some Japanese officials say that Japan must keep its options open to become a nuclear power, either because North Korea might become a nuclear threat or the US could someday withdraw its forces from Asia and fail to protect Japan. Other officials say their hesitation is only to put pressure on the nuclear powers to cut back on their arsenals.
But in its hesitation, Japan raised eyebrows among some Asian nations. "Japan should explain a bit more why it did not give full backing [to the unlimited extension of the NPT]," says South Korea's ambassador to Tokyo, Gong Ro Myung.
Japanese officials hope to make the endorsement by this fall. "A certain suspicion has arisen in some countries as a result of the fact that Japan has so far not formally stated its support of indefinite extension," says Japanese vice foreign minister Kunihiko Saiko.
He says Japan, the only country to have suffered an atomic attack, has no intention of changing its policy not to possess or develop nuclear weapons or introduce them onto its territory.