The Obama administration offered its most pessimistic assessment to date of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, warning that Pyongyang would have long-range missiles capable of striking the mainland U.S. within the next five years.
The stark comments from Defense Secretary Robert Gates marked a significant shift in the administration's public rhetoric about the reclusive North Korean regime, whose nuclear weapons -- and ongoing pursuit of missiles capable of reaching targets on American soil -- have long been of deep concern to American policymakers.
North Korea has for years been threatening to test long-range missiles, and it has successfully detonated nuclear bombs underground on multiple occasions. During a previous escalation in tensions between Washington and Pyongyang in the summer of 2009, the Obama administration moved a floating radar array and ground-to-air missile defense systems to Hawaii in preparation for a possible North Korean test-launch of its newest long-range missile.
Pyongyang opted not to fire the missile in 2009, and U.S. concerns about North Korea have more recently focused on the prospect that its cash-strapped government would sell missiles or nuclear weapons to rogue nations such as Iran.
Speaking to reporters in Beijing on Tuesday, however, Gates said that North Korea was "becoming a direct threat to the United States."
"I don't think it is an immediate threat," he said, but cautioned that it could pose significant potential danger to the U.S. within the next five years.
North Korea's nuclear program has been escalating in recent months amid a prolonged lull in the so-called six-party talks it had with the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. In November, North Korea showed a new uranium-enrichment plant to a visiting American scientist who said that its size and sophistication “stunned” him. The New York Times reported the following month that the site appeared to be far more advanced than comparable facilities in Iran.
Gates is currently in meetings with officials in Beijing, with the crisis on the Korean peninsula a hot-topic issue ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington on January 19. China keeps its North Korean ally afloat with aid, and has come under international pressure to use its influence to rein in Pyongyang after a series of provocations this past year.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been steadily increasing. Last year, Pyongyang sank the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 crew members. In November, the North shelled Yeonpyeong, a South Korean island near the disputed maritime border, killing two civilians and two South Korean Marines. The South has since stepped up its military drills, escalating the possibility of military confrontation. The North had promised retaliation for the drills, warning of the possibility of "nuclear holocaust," but held off.
South Korea’s new defense minister, Lee Hee-won, assumed his post in late November in the wake of the Yeonpyeong shelling; he promised retaliation by air strike if the country is provoked again.
The South's "tolerance for not responding" is nearly gone, Gates said. "Clearly, if there is another provocation there will be pressure on the … South Korean government to react.”
In its first formal proposal for dialogue with the South since the island shelling, Pyongyang on Monday offered dates for discussions late in January to prepare for a higher-level meeting to discuss economic ties on February 1. Seoul quickly dismissed the proposal as a means to receive economic aid and pushed for apologies for the attacks as well as a commitment for denuclearization from the North.
Gates will head to South Korea for talks with officials there on Friday. The U.S. currently has 29,000 troops stationed in South Korea and has pledged to defend its ally Seoul in the case of any military confrontation with the North.
-- Yochi J. Dreazen contributed contributed to this article.