Gates: North Korea Becoming Direct Threat to U.S.

BEIJING, Jan. 11, 2011 — If it con­tin­ues on its cur­rent path, North Korea could be a “direct threat” to the Unit­ed States in five years or less, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said here today.

Gates has shared with Chi­nese offi­cials America’s con­cern about North Korea, and the need for sta­bil­i­ty on the penin­su­la. The sec­re­tary spoke to reporters at a round­table fol­low­ing meet­ings with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao.

Gates told reporters that North Korea is not an imme­di­ate threat to the Unit­ed States.

“But on the oth­er hand, I don’t think it is a five-year threat,” the sec­re­tary said. “Let me be pre­cise: I think that North Korea will have devel­oped an inter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile with­in that time frame.”

The sec­re­tary thanked Chi­nese offi­cials for the con­struc­tive role they have played in damp­en­ing ten­sions on the penin­su­la. “They clear­ly have played a help­ful role,” he said.

There are two major events that have changed the sta­tus quo on the Kore­an penin­su­la, Gates said. The first is North Kore­an lead­ers con­tin­u­ing their devel­op­ment of nuclear weapons and inter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

“North Korea is becom­ing a direct threat to the Unit­ed States and we have to take that into account,” the sec­re­tary said.

The sec­ond event, he said, is “the sea change in the atti­tude of the South Kore­an pub­lic in their will­ing­ness to tol­er­ate the kind of provo­ca­tions the North Kore­ans have engaged in for many years.”

In March last year, North Korea tor­pe­doed the South Kore­an ship Cheo­nan and killed 46 South Kore­an sailors. In Novem­ber, North Korea shelled Yeon­pyeong Island, killing two civil­ians and two South Kore­an marines.

“Clear­ly, if there is anoth­er provo­ca­tion, there will be pres­sure on the South Kore­an gov­ern­ment to react,” Gates said. “We con­sid­er this a sit­u­a­tion of real con­cern and we think there is some urgency to pro­ceed­ing down the track of nego­ti­a­tions and engage­ment.”

It’s time, Gates said, for North Korea to engage in mean­ing­ful nego­ti­a­tions with its neigh­bor to the south.

“We don’t want to see the sit­u­a­tion that we’ve seen so many times before: which is the North Kore­ans engage in a provo­ca­tion and then every­body scram­bles to try to put ‘Hump­ty Dump­ty’ back togeth­er again,” he said. “I’ve used the phrase, ‘I don’t want to buy the same horse twice.’

‘I think we would like to see some con­crete actions by North Korea that shows they are seri­ous about mov­ing to a nego­ti­a­tion and engage­ment track,” Gates added.

North Kore­an offi­cials announced that they are ready for nego­ti­a­tions with South Korea. “Rhetoric is not enough at this time,” Gates said. “I think the North Kore­ans have to demon­strate that they are seri­ous about nego­ti­a­tion and engage­ment at this point.”

The sec­re­tary sug­gest­ed North Kore­an mora­to­ri­ums on mis­sile test­ing and nuclear test­ing for a start. “There are sev­er­al areas where they can take con­crete actions,” he said.

The sec­re­tary leaves Chi­na for Japan tomor­row, and will vis­it South Korea lat­er this week.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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