By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
SINGAPORE, May 30, 2009 – In some of his strongest words on the subject to date, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today said the United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and promised to defend U.S. allies in the region.
“We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in the region – or on us,” Gates said at the opening of the “Shangri-La Dialogue” Asia security summit here.
This comes on the heels of yet another reported missile test by North Korea yesterday. North Korea reported conducting both nuclear and missile tests this week and threatened to attack U.S. and South Korean warships.
The secretary called North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles “reckless, and ultimately self-destructive.” The United States, he said, would not bend under the pressure or provocation of North Korea.
“North Korea’s nuclear program and actions constitute a threat to regional peace and security,” Gates said. “The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or nonstate entities would be considered a great threat to the United States and our allies. And we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.”
On the military flight here, Gates told reporters traveling with him that there are no plans for military action against North Korea and that diplomatic measures are the first option for dealing with the country’s developing nuclear threat. He said he hopes any sanctions, however, would target the country’s leaders and not strike at its impoverished people.
Next week the United States will send senior officials to talk with leaders of South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. All are original members of the Six-Party Talks, put in place to attempt a peaceful resolution to the security concerns of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The talks have been stalled since the United Nations Security Council condemned North Korea in April for a failed missile test. Following the condemnation, North Korea expelled U.N. inspectors from the country.
Next week’s talks will center on developing a unified approach to North Korea’s actions, and will include discussion of military posturing should diplomatic sanctions fail, a senior defense department official said, speaking on background.
Gates met today with top defense officials from Japan and South Korea, the first time he’s met with them simultaneously. Customarily, Japan and South Korea have met with the United States separately, but Gates is reaching out for more multilateral approaches to security issues in the region.
He also met briefly with a senior military official from China, the country that Gates says has the most influence on North Korea.
Significant international cooperation is needed to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear weapons program, and the consequences of a military conflict in region are “enormous to contemplate,” the secretary said. At this point, however, North Korea’s nuclear program does not pose a direct military threat to the United States, he added.
“I think what is central to multilateral efforts … is to try and peacefully stop those programs before they do in fact become … a clear and present danger,” Gates said during the question and answer session after his speech.
“If they continue on the path they’re on,” he said, “I think the consequences for stability in the region are significant, and I think it poses the potential … for some kind of an arms race here in this region.”