Gates Warns of North Korean Missile Advances

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates today said North Korea in the next half decade could possess a missile capable of striking Alaska or the West Coast of the continental United States, the New York Times reported (see GSN, Jan. 10)

Gates said he believed the Stalinist state could build a restricted quantity of potentially nuclear-capable ICBMs. “I don’t think it’s an immediate threat, but on the other hand I don’t think it’s a five-year threat,” he said during a trip to China (see GSN, Jan. 10).

The defense chief”s remarks indicate a notable change in the Obama administration’s assessment of North Korea, which had previously categorized the country as a proliferation danger that might export nuclear technology and weapons to nations such as Iran.

With North Korea identified as a direct danger to the United States, calls could be forthcoming for an expansion of Fort Greely in Alaska, which fields missile interceptors intended to eliminate any incoming long-range North Korean ballistic missile (see GSN , March 4, 2010).

North Korea is believed to have enough processed plutonium to fuel about six nuclear weapons. The isolated state in November revealed a new uranium enrichment plant, which could provide a second path for producing fissile material. While carrying out two nuclear tests to date, Pyongyang is not yet believed to have developed the ability to miniaturize its strategic weapons so they can be fielded on missiles.

Achieving warhead miniaturization is one of the North’s chief technological obstacles. It is not known if Pyongyang has been able to buy warhead blueprints form a third party such as Pakistan, whose former chief nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan provided the North with uranium enrichment machinery. Developing a bomb without any outside assistance is particularly tricky, as evidenced by other nations’ forays into the field (Bumiller/Sanger,New York Times, Jan. 11).

“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, and we have to take that into account,” the Associated Press quoted Gates as saying.

The potential for an outbreak of war between the Koreas is also increasing as Seoul has run out of patience with Pyongyang’s provocations, the Pentagon head 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.”

South Korea’s “tolerance for not responding” is all but gone, Gates said to journalists in Beijing.

Seoul has demanded an apology from Pyongyang for its purported March 2010 torpedoing of a South Korean warship, an incident that killed 46 sailors, and for the November artillery barrage that killed four people on Yeonpyeong Island. South Korea has responded to the incidents by changing its defensive posture to permit punitive airstrikes in response to further attacks.

“Clearly, if there is another provocation there will be pressure on the … South Korean government to react,” Gates said.

Pyongyang has called for a return to the multinational aid-for-denuclearization talks it abandoned in spring 2009. The negotiations involve China, Japan, both Koreas, Russia and the United States. Tokyo, Seoul and Washington, however, have said they would not return to the talks until the North demonstrates its commitment to nuclear disarmament.

Pyongyang could demonstrate that commitment by declaring a moratorium on additional missile and nuclear tests, Gates said.

The North should not profit from its aggressive behavior, Gates said. North Korea has a history of demanding concessions after engaging in brinkmanship tactics “and then everybody scrambles diplomatically to try and put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I don’t want to buy the same horse twice.”

The defense secretary said he was grateful to Chinese President Hu Jintao and other Chinese officials for pressing Pyongyang to cease its provocative behavior. He asked that Beijing maintain that effort (Anne Gearan, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, Jan. 11).

Gates said a chief focus of his high-profile trip to Beijing was the North Korean nuclear impasse. He urged China to work more closely with the United States in resolving the issue, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

Hu is set to meet with President Obama in Washington next week. North Korea is expected to be a leading topic of discussion.

Gates rejected Chinese criticism of a series of U.S.-South Korean maritime maneuvers carried out last year. Beijing has said the drills were not an appropriate response to North Korean belligerence and that they threatened its own security interests.

“Our exercises have not been directed in any way at China,” the defense secretary said. “Rather, they have been the result of our growing concern over the provocative behavior of North Korea. Our efforts have been directed at deterring further provocations on the part of North Korea” (Hwang Doo-hyong, Yonhap News Agency, Jan. 10).

The Stalinist state today blasted Seoul for spurning a proposal for direct talks on renewed economic cooperation, Agence France-Presse reported.

The state-run Minju Josun said the South was guilty of “dampening hopes for improved relations.”

In rejecting the offer for talks, Seoul asserted that the North must first admit its guilt in last year’s warship sinking and the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island and should also reaffirm its promise to stop its nuclear work (Agence France-Presse I/Yahoo!News, Jan. 10).

Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency applauded Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara’s statement that his government wants at some point to hold direct talks with the Kim Jong Il regime, AFP reported today.

“We are ready to meet and talk with countries that are friendly to us,” the state-controlled agency said. “If Japanese authorities move to improve ties, it would contribute to peace and development on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia” (Agence France-Presse II/Yahoo!News, Jan. 11).

Maehara, however, today said his government had not yet decided under what terms it would agree to bilateral discussions with North Korea, Kyodo News reported.

“We will enter into talks based on the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, but how to move forward the dialogue would be on a clean slate,” Maehara told journalists.

The Pyongyang Declaration commits North Korea and Japan to seek a normalization of relations.

The foreign minister said he anticipates bilateral discussions would be principally centered on North Korea’s missile and nuclear work and previous kidnappings of Japanese citizens. These direct talks should be held even if the paralyzed six-nation talks are not resumed, Maehara said (Kyodo News/ , Jan. 11).

Maehara is set to travel to South Korea on Friday for discussions on the North Korean threat, according to the South Korean Foreign Ministry. The bilateral talks are to involve diplomatic and defense officials, AFP reported (Agence France-Presse III/Straits Times, Jan. 11).

Elsewhere, under the weight of heightened U.N. Security Council sanctions, North Korea’s foreign trade in 2009 contracted by 10 percent from the year before, falling to $3.4 billion, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Pyongyang has been forced to turn even more to longtime economic benefactor China, according to analysts. As the North was already largely closed to international trade, the severity of the recent drop-off is difficult to determine.

“It’s painful but not lethal,” East Asian economic studies professor Rudiger Frank said. “North Korea’s trade levels are already so low the drop should not be overemphasized.”

Experts said the North Korean government’s financial troubles show the 2009 U.N. sanctions are having an effect.

“The regime faces a very difficult time ahead,” Seoul-based researcher Jeong Hyung-gon said. “They know that to turn things around, they cannot simply rely on China” (John Glionna, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 11).