Long-pacifist Japan is giving in to the idea that the conduct of international politics requires nations to use force - or at least help others to do so. This change is taking place slowly, but its implications are huge. If Japan had a military on a par with its economy (the current recession notwithstanding), the US wouldn't be the only superpower. And China, India, and Pakistan might not be the only countries in Asia with nuclear weapons. Instead, thanks to a "peace" Constitution drafted by US occupation forces after World War II, Japan has long struggled to be content with expressing power in economic terms. But money doesn't buy everything. The most recent indications of a change in Japanese thinking took place this week. Japanese leaders assured visiting US Defense Secretary William Cohen that the country's parliament would soon pass legislation that will enable Japan to support US forces more closely if a crisis occurs in nearby countries. The US maintains roughly 45,000 troops in Japan, including a Marine division and an aircraft carrier, but the guidelines that cover how Japan would back up these forces in an Asian crisis have always been fuzzy. Legislative changes would make clear, for instance, that Japan could treat US casualties, help enforce an embargo, and allow US planes to land at civilian airports. This clarity, explains one foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, fills in the "missing link" in the US-Japan security alliance: rules that lay down "what can be done cooperatively ... in times of contingencies in areas around Japan." New coalition Secondly, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) yesterday entered into a coalition government with a minor party whose leader, Ichiro Ozawa, has long demanded that the country deploy its military in support of United Nations peacekeeping operations. Japan's inability to contribute more than cash during the 1991 Gulf War continues to haunt this country's leaders. Although many details of their agreement on security matters remain to be worked out, the two parties said Japan would "defreeze" its participation in the more dangerous aspects of enforcing UN mandates, as long as Japanese forces do not take part in combat and are not "integral" to the use of force. "The fact that both the Liberal Party and the LDP agreed on the security/defense issue," Mr. Ozawa said yesterday, referring to his own group first, "probably has more significance than the public actually thinks. It will definitely bring about a big change in Japanese society." The extent of that change is impossible to predict, but new thinking about security matters is already evident. Last year, the government decided to begin building its own reconnaissance satellites, rather than relying exclusively on the US for intelligence, and agreed to join the US in the R&D of an ambitious missile-defense system. At least in part, North Korea prompted both measures by firing a long-range ballistic missile over northern Japan last Aug. 31. Yesterday, as Secretary Cohen and Japanese leaders uttered vows of cooperation, North Korea was the intended audience. The xenophobic, Communist half of the Korean peninsula represents the biggest threat to peace in the region. The US says it is trying to preserve a 1994 deal with North Korea in which the country agreed to freeze its indigenous nuclear program in exchange for two new reactors provided by South Korea, Japan, and other countries. The US was to arrange for fuel oil supplies until the new reactors were completed. The deal now seems near collapse, as North Korea's state-run news agency noted yesterday. That is partly because the North is frustrated that the fuel oil and the reactors have not been provided as speedily as it expected and partly because of North Korea's seemingly unrelenting belligerency since the deal. A North Korean spy submarine turned up on South Korean shores in 1996 and last summer US intelligence agencies detected a huge construction site that they suspect may indicate a revival of the country's nuclear program, that experts worry could lead to the development of weapons. Shaky North Korea deal Now there is little support in Congress for buying fuel oil for North Korea, and the country demands a $300 million payment in exchange for allowing the US to inspect the construction project. At the same time, the US policy of using diplomacy and forbearance in dealing with North Korea is beginning to look odd in contrast to its militaristic approach toward Iraq. "When the US attacked Iraq last year," says Akira Kato, a professor of international relations at Obirin College in Tokyo, "the intention was definitely there to threaten [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il." In pushing for enhanced support from Japanese forces, he adds, the US wants "to be ready in time for any militaristic threat from North Korea." But encouraging greater support from the Japanese has its risks. The most obvious is that Japan will return to militarism, a fear among pacifist Japanese and Asians who are still disturbed by memories of Japan's actions before and during World War II. "Does the US want to see Japan go that far? The answer is probably no," Professor Kato concludes. Indeed, it was the US who made pacifism a part of Japan's postwar identity, drafting a constitution that bans the country from using force to resolve international disputes and from maintaining "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential." Citing the need for self-defense, Japanese governments have long interpreted this wording to allow a military that maintains a rigidly defensive outlook. The alliance with the US has guaranteed Japanese security, at the expense of complete independence. At the same time, strong security ties with the US give Japan some room to expand militarily because the American role soothes suspicious neighbors. Some Japanese pundits are calling these days for the country to become more militarily self-reliant, but experts note that Japan would have a long way to go to achieve such independence. In responding to an attack from North Korea, says Masashi Nishihara, who teaches at the National Defense Academy outside Tokyo, Japanese jets could reach the peninsula, but not return. Japan's Air Self-Defense Force can't refuel its planes in midair, he notes, since that capability has been considered too offensive.