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(2nd LD) N. Korea 'more lethal' as it continues nuclear pursuit, proliferation: Gates

All Headlines 18:14 October 21, 2009

(ATTN: MERGES with story slugged US-S Korea-security talks; CHANGES slug; UPDATES throughout; ADDS comment, background throughout; RESTRUCTURES; TRIMS)
By Sam Kim

SEOUL, Oct. 21 (Yonhap) -- The threat posed by North Korea has become "more lethal and destabilizing" as the country continues to pursue nuclear arms and missiles while spreading related knowledge, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday.

The comments came as the top commanders of South Korea and the U.S. shared their latest assessment of North Korea's military capabilities at an annual security meeting in Seoul between the two allies.

"The peril posed by the North Korean regime remains, and in many ways, has become even more lethal and destabilizing," Gates told a group of U.S. and South Korean soldiers in Seoul.

"Ironically, even as the capability of their ground forces continues to degrade, their missile development and nuclear programs are increasingly dangerous," he said.

Gates arrived here in South Korea from Japan to meet with his counterpart, Kim Tae-young, on Thursday for the annual Security Consultative Meeting between the two countries.

His meeting was preceded Wednesday by the Military Committee Meeting between South Korean Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Lee Sang-eui and his U.S. counterpart, Adm. Michael Mullen.

This year's talks come after North Korea conducted its second nuclear test in May and resumed its missile testing earlier this month. The talks are alternately hosted by the two sides.

The communist state is also sending mixed signals to the outside world by threatening a naval clash on the west coast of the divided Korean Peninsula while simultaneously showing willingness to engage in dialogue over its nuclear program.

"Today, it is North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons and proliferation of nuclear know-how and ballistic missile weapons and parts that have focused our attention," Gates said.

"Everything they make, they seem to be willing to sell," he said, adding that "there should be no mistaking that we do not today, nor will we ever, accept a North Korea with nuclear weapons."

The U.S. has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea as a deterrent against North Korea -- a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

Flying to Japan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was "prepared to discuss a broad range of needs in Afghanistan" when he meets South Korea's defense minister.

"I'm not going to make any requests of anybody on this trip. But we do have a common interest in moving forward in Afghanistan," he said. South Korean media have speculated for weeks that Washington may ask Seoul to send combat troops to Afghanistan.

South Korea withdrew more than 200 military medics and engineers from Afghanistan in 2007 after dozens of South Korean Christian missionaries were held captive there. Two were killed.

The visit by Gates comes as U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to embark on a four-nation Asian trip that will include a stop in South Korea in mid-November.

"We encourage the Republic of Korea's political leaders to make an investment in defense appropriate to Korea's emerging role as a contributor to global security and commensurate with the threat you face on the peninsula," Gates said. The Republic of Korea is South Korea's official name.

"Going forward, Korea's international military contributions should be seen as what they are -- something that is done to benefit your own security and vital interests," he said.

In a summit agreement between Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in June, the U.S. promised to bolster its measures to defend South Korea under the concept of "extended deterrence."

The concept is based on the willingness of the U.S. to dispatch a variety of advanced military assets, including submarines and bombers, to the Korean Peninsula in the event of a conflict.

"The U.S. is committed to providing the extended deterrence using the full range of American military might -- from the nuclear umbrella to conventional strike and missile defense capabilities," Gates said.

Gates affirmed the transfer of the wartime operational command of South Korean troops from Washington to Seoul will occur as planned in 2012, calling it "the culmination of a series of shifts towards greater responsibility."

The command was relinquished to the U.S. at the onset of the Korean War. Peacetime control was returned in 1994.

Gates met with his Japanese counterpart, Toshimi Kitazawa, on Wednesday morning in Tokyo and will fly to Slovakia following his South Korean visit.

"For most of the Cold War, security and stability in the Pacific Rim were provided by a series of bilateral alliances between the U.S. and our closest allies," he said. "But what we are seeing more of, and would like to encourage, is more security cooperation among our traditional allies and with our partners in the region."

samkim@yna.co.kr
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