North Korea's progress on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is "a harbinger of a dark future" and has created an urgent need for more pressure on the reclusive communist government to change its ways, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday.
He said the North's nuclear program does not "at this point" represent a direct military threat to the United States and he does not plan to build up American troops in the region. But the North's efforts pose the potential for an arms race in Asia that could spread beyond the region, he added.
At an annual meeting of defense and security officials, the Pentagon chief said past efforts to cajole North Korea into scrapping its nuclear weapons program have only emboldened it.
North Korea's yearslong use of scare tactics as a bargaining chip to secure aid and other concessions — only to later renege on promises — has worn thin the patience of five nations negotiating with the North, Gates said.
"I think that everyone in the room is familiar with the tactics that the North Koreans use. They create a crisis and the rest of us pay a price to return to the status quo ante," he said in a question-and-answer session after his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
"As the expression goes in the United States, 'I am tired of buying the same horse twice.' I think this notion that we buy our way back to the status quo ante is an approach that I personally at least think we ought to think very hard about. There are perhaps other ways to try and get the North Koreans to change their approach," he said.
1953 truce in question
The sharp statements were echoed by the South Korean defense minister and even China, North Korea's strongest ally. They reflect fears throughout the region that last week's nuclear and missile tests by North Korea could spiral out of control and lead to fighting.
"President Obama has offered an open hand to tyrannies that unclench their fists. He is hopeful, but he is not naive," Gates said in his speech.
"Likewise, the United States and our allies are open to dialogue, but we will not bend to pressure or provocation. And on this count, North Korea's latest reply to our overtures is not exactly something we would characterize as helpful or constructive. We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in Asia — or on us. At the end of the day, the choice to continue as a destitute, international pariah is North Korea's alone to make. The world is waiting."
The North said it would no longer honor a 1953 armistice truce with South Korea after Seoul joined a 90-plus nation security alliance that seeks to curb nuclear trafficking on the seas.
Additionally, the U.N. Security Council is drafting financial and military penalties against North Korea as punishment for the weapons testing. Similar penalties approved after the North's 2006 atomic test have been only sporadically enforced, and largely ignored by China and Russia.
"I think that the combination of their progress in developing nuclear technology, and their progress in developing multistage long-range missiles, is a harbinger of a dark future," Gates said. "What is now central to multilateral efforts ... is to try to peacefully stop those programs before they do in fact become a `clear and present danger,' as the expression goes."
Response to North Korea
Gates also warned North Korea against secretly selling its weapons technology to other outlaw nations.
Later, at what officials called the first-ever meeting among defense chiefs from the U.S., Japan and South Korea, Gates asked his counterparts to begin considering other steps against the North should it continue to escalate is nuclear program. The military leaders did not discuss specific potential actions, but U.S. officials who attended the half-hour meeting said any steps would be taken in self-defense.
South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee said the talks "could not have come at a better time."
"North Korea perhaps to this point may have mistakenly believed that it could be perhaps rewarded for its wrong behaviors," Lee told reporters. "But that is no longer the case."
Earlier Saturday, Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the second-in-command of the General Staff of China's military, told the security forum that Beijing "has expressed a firm opposition and grave concern about the nuclear test."
The Obama administration said it planned to send a delegation on Sunday to Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and possibly Moscow over the next week to discuss how to respond to North Korea.
"The reality is that given the objectives of the six-party talks that were established some years ago, it would be hard to point to them at this point as an example of success," Gates said in response to a question after his speech.
Those countries — the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan — "need to think freshly about where we go from here."