TOKYO — The time has come for a new U.S.-Japan defense agreement to reflect the changing security environment in the region, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, as concerns over North Korea’s deadly provocations continue to dominate his Asian tour.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan and President Barack Obama will issue a joint vision statement on the alliance in Washington later this year, Japan’s Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said in a meeting with Gates on Thursday. The last such agreement was in 2005.

“The world and circumstances in northeast Asia have evolved a good deal since then,” Gates said later at a joint news conference at the Ministry of Defense. “So it is appropriate to update our alliance at this time.”

The decision, he said, has nothing to do with the realignment plan for U.S. forces in the Pacific and the ongoing controversy over relocating Okinawa’s Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Gates in the past has strongly urged Tokyo to move forward with the agreement despite local protests, but on Thursday he took a much softer stance.

“We intend to follow the lead of the Japanese government in working with the people of Okinawa to take their interests and concerns into account,” Gates said.

“We read a lot about Okinawa and Futenma relocation, but the alliance is broader than this.”

The two nations confirmed they will implement that plan as agreed to in May.

Gates will deliver a keynote speech on the alliance Friday.

Gates said Kan’s Washington visit would come after this spring’s planned 2-plus-2 meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said the sides had agreed to “accelerate” their consultations.

In his fourth and likely last visit to Tokyo as secretary, Gates briefed Japanese leaders on his China visit and discussed “the appropriate response to North Korea’s continued belligerence and nuclear weapons program,” as well as China’s growing military strength and joint ballistic missile defense developments.

In China, Gates had said one of his top concerns for the region is the South Korean public’s desire for retaliation. Since Japan and South Korea agreed Monday to work toward intelligence sharing and mutual support agreements, some observers and the Japanese public have wondered just how far it could go in defending itself or South Korea, considering its pacifist constitution.

Asked for clarification by reporters, Gates replied, “It’s a longstanding principle that every country has the right to protect itself and defend itself against an unprovoked attack.”

However, he quickly tempered that comment, saying that the U.S., Japan, South Korea and China all agree they first must somehow persuade Pyongyang to end its deadly attacks.

“I think the central objective of all involved parties should be to prevent another provocation from taking place in the first place,” he said.

Kitazawa said his talks with South Korea did not involve “concrete content.” “We have not really reached that level of military cooperation,” he said.

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