April 30, 2017 8:50 pm JST

Japan issues 1st order to protect U.S. ships amid N. Korea tension

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel Izumo sails at Tokyo Bay. © Kyodo

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan has issued its first order for forces to protect U.S. military vessels since new security legislation was enacted last year, Japanese government sources said Sunday, amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada ordered the dispatch of the Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier Izumo on Monday to protect a U.S. Navy supply vessel in the Pacific, the sources said.

The United States has sent the Navy's Carl Vinson carrier strike group to waters near the Korean Peninsula, amid signs North Korea could test-fire more missiles or conduct a nuclear test.

North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile Saturday, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The U.S. aircraft carrier arrived in the Sea of Japan on the same day and conducted a joint drill with MSDF destroyers and another one with South Korea's navy.

The sources said the Izumo will leave Yokosuka base in Kanagawa, southwest of Tokyo, on Monday morning, and join the supply ship off the Boso Peninsula in Chiba, east of the capital. The vessels will sail to the Shikoku region in western Japan.

It was not immediately known whether the Izumo will guard one or more supply ships.

The supply ship, meanwhile, is expected to refuel other U.S. vessels, currently on standby in waters near Japan for further missile test-firings by Pyongyang, as well as ships sailing with the Carl Vinson.

Guarding other countries' vessels is part of the Self-Defense Forces' expanded responsibilities under the security legislation that came into force in March last year to increase Japan's role in global security. The SDF were previously prevented from protecting allied forces as their use of weapons was restricted to self-defense.

Critics argue that the legislation erodes Japan's postwar pacifist Constitution and may embroil Japanese troops in overseas military actions for the first time since World War II.

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