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Japan is inching toward new, improved Patriot missiles as a defense against North Korea’s ballistic missile program.

Japan’s anti-missile arsenal includes 27 short-range Patriots. But the recent success of Patriot missiles in the U.S.-led war in Iraq has prompted some officials to want an advanced version while Japan’s new weapons system is developed.

“It will be a while before Japan can be equipped with the new missile defense system,” said Shinichi Ogawa, chief scientist at the National Institute of Defense Studies. “But we already have the option to purchase an already developed missile defense system from the United States to prepare against immediate threats.”

The Patriot Advanced Capability-2 missile (PAC2) has a range of 620 miles.

The idea is controversial among Asian nations that remember a militaristic Japan’s effect on the region during World War II.

“Despite the declining level of opposition from domestic politicians, Japan’s missile defense system is seen regionally as just one more troubling sign of a major shift in Tokyo’s position on defense and military matters,” warned, an independent intelligence-gathering firm.

“Pyongyang already has criticized Tokyo’s missile defense plans, claiming they are part of U.S.-led plans to invade North Korea and remove the regime.”

“For Japan,” Ogawa countered, “missile defense is purely for a self-defense purpose. Japan does not possess ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons. All Japan is trying to do is to shoot down ballistic missiles fired at Japan.”

He said Japan knows acquiring a missile defense system could prompt other nations to increase their own ballistic arsenals, “but this is not Japan’s fault.”

A major roadblock to acquiring a new missile system was removed when Naoto Kan, president of the Democratic Party, Japan’s largest opposition party, changed his stance.

After the performance of U.S. and Kuwaiti Patriot missile batteries in the first two weeks of the Iraqi war, Kan — formerly opposed to missile defense — announced last week he no longer doubts its feasibility.

The Patriot was of relatively little use against Iraqi Scud missiles during Desert Storm. But it has had three major upgrades since 1991, according to the Center for Defense Information.

The new Patriots intercepted six Iraqi missiles in the first two weeks of the war.

“Given the current situation, I now reckon that it is worth studying the possibility,” Kan told the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Tokyo recently.

Shigeru Ishiba, Japanese Defense Agency chief, told Diet members March 27 that Japan should acquire the PAC2s as a precaution.

The missile defense talk came as Japan launched its first two spy satellites to keep an eye on North Korea’s missile activities, and as North Korea tested a ground-to-ship missile Tuesday.

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