North Korea is direct threat to US, says defence secretary Robert Gates

 Published: 1/11/2011 10:35:04 AM GMT
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North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States, the defence secretary, Robert Gates, said today, in a marked shift in the administration's position.

Gates said that North Korea was not an immediate threat but that he believed it would develop an intercontinental ballistic missile within five years. He had previously focused on the dangers posed by Pyongyang in terms of proliferation.

Proliferation experts questioned whether his prediction was realistic, suggesting that he was seeking to emphasise US concerns to China.

Gates, who is in Beijing for talks to improve military ties, praised Chinese efforts to lower tensions on the Korean peninsula and told reporters he had asked President Hu Jintao and others to continue pressing Pyongyang.

China, as North Korea's only major ally and an essential source of energy and food, has been under pressure to rein in its neighbour. Tensions on the peninsula have deteriorated over the last two years, most strikingly since the shelling of Yeonpyeong island in November.

"With the North Koreans' continuing development of nuclear weapons and their development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States," the defence secretary said.

Gates said he did not believe North Korea was an immediate threat or even a five-year threat.

"I think that North Korea will have developed an intercontinental ballistic missile within that time– not that they will have huge numbers or anything like that," he said. "But … I believe they will have a very limited capability."

Experts questioned that assessment.

Greg Thielmann, senior fellow at the Arms Control Association and a former Director of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office at the State Department, suggested it was "a little misleading" to imply the North could have ICBM-range missiles within five years.

"Its testing programme has been very sporadic and largely unsuccessful in testing long-range missiles. You have to assume he is trying to emphasise to China North Korean missile developments are a serious treat to international security."

Thielmann added that the only serious threat to the US would be an ICBM with a nuclear warhead. Although the North has twice tested nuclear devices, experts believe it does not yet have the capacity to miniaturise them and mount them on a missile.

Pyongyang has been attempting to create a long-range missile for several years. But a test in 2006 lasted only seconds. Two years ago the Taepodong-2 stayed airborne for longer but failed to put a satellite into orbit. Other countries judged that test to be related to the long-range missile programme because it involved the same launch technology.

David Santoro, research associate for the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said it was difficult to judge the stage Pyongyang had reached because its technological progress was so uneven. But he added of the threat to the US: "Five years is a long time, so potentially it could happen, but to me it seems a bit far-fetched.

"This may be part of the political discourse, trying to get China to put more pressure on the North."

Santoro warned that North Korea's weapons programmes should remain high on the international agenda given its acquisition and export of ballistic and nuclear technology. The North is thought to have more than 800 ballistic missiles.

The remarks by Gates came as Pyongyang repeated its calls for a return to talks following the tense confrontation with Seoul at the end of the year. The South's government, which has toughened its stance in the wake of the Yeonpyeong attack, has dismissed those offers as propaganda.

"We consider this a situation of real concern and we think there is some urgency to proceeding down the track of negotiations and engagement," said Gates, who will arrive in Seoul on Friday to discuss the issue. But he added that North Korea needed to prove its sincerity, for example by announcing a moratorium on missile and nuclear testing.

The North said today that the test of sincerity would be whether the two Koreas were willing to meet to resolve their differences.

"Whether we are sincere or not will be proven when we sit together face-to-face," wrote Minju Joson, a publication of the North's cabinet, in an editorial carried by the state news agency.

"They will all have to talk at some point because there are not any alternatives," said Professor Hazel Smith, an expert on the North at Cranfield University.

"China and Russia are trying to get everybody back to the table. In broad strategic terms this [stand-off] is pushing China and Russia closer together, which might not be what the US wants."


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