AFTER months of pleading insistence that the North Korean nuclear standoff be resolved with words - ``tenacious dialogue'' is the phrase Japan's prime minister uses - Japanese officials have resigned themselves to preparing for action as well.
Remarkably, this change does not seem to be igniting the controversy that preceded Japanese moves to join multinational efforts such as the United Nations peacemaking mission in Cambodia or the Gulf-war coalition forces. This nation has had to think long and hard about projecting anything other than economic power overseas, particularly when danger is afoot.
Now the United States is asking the UN Security Council to impose economic sanctions on North Korea to pressure the country to show that it is not developing nuclear weapons. The North, which denies that it is making an atomic bomb but has also denied international inspectors access to key sites, threatens that sanctions would spark a war.
The Japanese government's release of a list of steps it could take as part of a multinational effort to squeeze North Korea was not exactly greeted with applause, but the almost perfunctory condemnation from Socialist politicians subsided quickly.
This mild response may be evidence that the Japanese are indeed starting to feel more comfortable with a more-assertive international role. On the other hand, says a retired senior diplomat, it could be that most Japanese feel the issue is too important to quibble over.
In any case, the government is stepping gingerly into the discussion of what it can and should do to pressure North Korea. There are two main reasons:
* Japan's Constitution abjures the use of force in resolving international disputes. Many Japanese are deeply respectful of these pacifist principles and oppose the government's attempts to pair stick with carrot in the conduct of its foreign policy.
Tokyo's 10-point plan does not include any provision for aiding in the military enforcement of sanctions, but it does include steps to cut the flow of money from Korean residents here to North Korea, a major source of hard currency for the regime.
* Official efforts to hurt the regime in Pyongyang will likely also hurt North Korea's estimated 250,000 backers in Japan, which could lead to charges of discrimination against Koreans here.
Since April, there have been a few incidents of harassment of girls wearing uniforms worn in schools run by North Koreans. The attacks are thought to have been prompted by worries over the nuclear threat the North poses here.
These cases have nothing to do with the government, of course, but Tokyo does not want to promote policies that could be seen as an official version of street-level prejudice. Embarrassed officials admitted June 7 that a large-scale police raid a day earlier on an institution run by North Koreans in Kyoto, Japan, was a mistake, although they refused to apologize.
On the other side of the policy equation, is the growing international concern that North Korea really is developing a nuclear weapon. And there is the US, Japan's chief ally and protector, which is no stranger to the forceful prosecution of its national interests.
The US has been encouraging Japanese officials to take a stronger hand in ensuring Asian security, helping to propel an ongoing discussion here about Japan's role in the world.
Resolute action on North Korea, says Tokyo University law professor Yasuaki Onuma, may present a case study of where this discussion is headed.
Ichiro Ozawa, the key strategist behind the minority government of Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata, has for several years urged his compatriots to take up their responsibilities as an international power. His arguments, Mr. Onuma says, have ``definitely prepared the path and the present psychological situation'' that has resulted in a calmer acceptance of the government's plans. Onuma, however, criticizes Mr. Ozawa for being too beholden to the US. ``We should take into consideration more the voices of Asian countries and other third-world nations that have been frustrated with ... a kind of a cultural and informational dominance of the West over the world.
``We have to be very careful,'' he argues, ``in not carrying out the ideas of the West too easily.'' He adds that the urging of some Cabinet members to respect the voice of China ``is a good sign in this respect.'' Despite these reservations, Onuma says there would be broad support for Japan helping to institute UN sanctions against North Korea. But he predicts there would be controversy if the Security Council could not agree and sanctions were imposed by the US, South Korea, and Japan without UN backing.
Kiyoaki Kikuchi, a former Japanese ambassador to the UN and elsewhere, says the government's participation in sanctions would have been well received even without the kind of thinking espoused by Ozawa. This issue, he explains, is a matter of ``protecting our own country.''