Members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) participate in a live fire exercise at the foot of Mount Fuji in the Hataoka district of the East Fuji Maneuver Area in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan. (Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)

Japan Still Sees ‘Imminent’ Threat From North Korea

(Bloomberg) -- Count the U.S.’s closest ally in Asia among those unconvinced by President Donald Trump’s assurances North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat” after his June summit with Kim Jong Un.

Japan’s defense ministry reaffirmed its concern Tuesday that North Korea posed a “grave and imminent” to the country, which is defended by 54,000 U.S. military personnel under a post-war security pact. The ministry highlighted the risk in an annual white paper, saying Kim’s regime has “seriously damaged” regional peace and security with three nuclear tests and 40 ballistic missile launches since 2016.

The document -- approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet -- underscores lingering regional concern over Kim’s weapons program, despite his commitment to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The paper’s release comes just days after Trump made his first acknowledgment that talks weren’t moving quickly enough, canceling a planned North Korea trip by U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

While Japan described Kim’s denuclearization pledge as a “highly significant” move toward peace, it said close monitoring was necessary to ensure North Korea took concrete action toward giving up its bombs and missiles. The continuing threat has been among Abe’s justifications for more defense spending, with the Yomiuri newspaper reporting last week that the ministry was seeking its seventh-straight budget increase, including funds for Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Aegis Ashore land-based ballistic-missile-defense system.

While the U.S. Defense Department described North Korea as a “rogue regime” and “destabilizing” force in its own strategy document released in January, Trump offered a more rosy assessment in the immediate aftermath of his summit with Kim. “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” he said in June 13 tweet, saying in another that Americans could “sleep well tonight.”

Japan has been among the region’s biggest skeptics of the North Korean detente led by Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and fissures have widened between the allies as talks stall. Moon is planning to meet Kim in Pyongyang next month -- the first such trip by South Korean president in 11 years -- and his defense ministry is considering deleting its description of North Korea’s military as “our enemy” from its own upcoming defense report, the Yonhap News Agency said last week.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.