While worrisome, North Korea's nuclear and missile tests have not reached a crisis level that would warrant additional U.S. troops in the region, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
Gates, flying to Singapore to meet with Asian defense ministers, said he has not seen any moves by North Korea's military that would prompt the United States to add to the roughly 28,000 troops already in South Korea. He said any military actions would need to be decided upon, and carried out, by broad international agreement.
"I don't think that anybody in the (Obama) administration thinks there is a crisis," Gates told reporters aboard his military jet early Friday morning, still Thursday night in Washington.
"What we do have, though, are two new developments that are very provocative, that are aggressive, accompanied by very aggressive rhetoric," he said. "And I think it brings home the reality of the challenge that North Korea poses to the region and to the international community."
Gates appeared to try to tamp down some of the tough rhetoric that has flown between Washington and Pyongyang this week, since North Korea said it successfully detonated a nuclear device in its northeast on Monday and followed with a series of short-range missile launches.
Gates also cited a silver lining of the situation: an opportunity to build stronger ties with the Chinese government.
"Just based on what the Chinese government has said publicly, they've clearly pretty unhappy about the nuclear test in particular, and they weren't very happy about the missile test either," Gates said. "And my impression is they were surprised by the nuclear test. And so, as I say, I think there may be some opportunities here."
He added: "I don't want to put the burden solely on China, because the reality is that while China has more influence than anybody else on North Korea, I believe that that influence has its limits. But it is important for the Chinese to be a part of any effort to try to deal with these issues with North Korea."
In what the Pentagon called a first for a U.S. defense chief, Gates was to meet with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts at the two-day Singapore conference. He also was to meet briefly with the head of China's military.
Gates said North Korea would likely dominate the Singapore discussions and hinted that additional economic or military sanctions might be put on Pyongyang as punishment for the tests. But he said that any sanctions should impact the communist government and not its citizens, whom he said have already suffered "enough damage" by their leaders.
He cited North Korean exports of missile and nuclear technology as a top worry, and said the United Nations, and Russia and China in particular, need to be part of any efforts to curb them.
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