SEOUL, Oct 22 – US Defense Secretary Robert Gates Thursday labelled North Korea a grave threat to international peace and promised to continue protecting Washington’s allies in the region under a nuclear umbrella.
Speaking at annual security talks with his South Korean counterpart, Gates pledged to employ the full array of US military might as a deterrent to the North’s nuclear and missile programmes.
"North Korea continues to pose a threat to South Korea, to the region and to others," Gates said.
"And, as such, I want to reaffirm the unwavering commitment of the United States to the alliance and to the defence of the Republic of Korea (South Korea)," he said at the start of the annual Security Consultative Meeting.
"The United States will continue to provide extended deterrence, using the full range of military capabilities — including the nuclear umbrella — to ensure ROK security."
The US stations 28,500 troops to bolster South Korea’s 655,000-strong armed forces against the North’s 1.2 million-member military. It also guarantees a "nuclear umbrella" over its long-time ally in case of atomic attack.
South Korean Defence Minister Kim Tae-Young said the North’s policy had not changed despite recent diplomatic overtures.
Although "there are signs of some change from North Korea, including its recent willingness to talk, in reality the unstable situation such as the nuclear programme and a military-first policy continues unchanged," Kim said.
In a toughly worded statement Gates and Kim said the missile and nuclear tests in April and May, along with recent short-range missile tests, clearly violate United Nations Security Council resolutions.
They also undermine global non-proliferation efforts and constitute "direct and grave threats" to regional and international peace, it said.
The statement came a day after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said sanctions against North Korea would be relaxed only when it takes "verifiable and irreversible" steps for full nuclear disarmament. Related article: No US ties with nuclear NKorea
Gates also issued a stern warning on Wednesday at the start of his visit, saying his government would never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. He described its atomic and missile programmes as a "lethal and destabilising" threat.
At a press conference Thursday, he stressed Washington would stand together with South Korea and other allies and partners in seeking its "complete and verifiable denuclearisation."
After months of tension, the North in August began making peace overtures to Seoul and Washington. But it still test-fired short-range missiles last week and warned South Korea of a potential naval clash on their disputed border.
The North quit six-party nuclear disarmament talks in April. The regime has indicated a willingness to return to multilateral talks but only if it first holds discussions with the United States alone.
Gates also discussed Seoul’s preparations to take over wartime operational control of its troops from US commanders by 2012.
Seoul relinquished command over its troops to the United States during the 1950-53 Korean War but regained peacetime control in 1994. Gates said he has "complete confidence" the April 2012 deadline will be met.
He said he made "no specific request" to Seoul for assistance in Afghanistan, although international contributions towards the cost of expanding its army and civilian projects were welcome.
South Korea sent 210 engineering and medical troops to Afghanistan in February 2002 but withdrew them in December 2007. It now has 25 personnel, mainly aid workers, in the country but plans to raise the number to 85 next year.
After his talks in Seoul, Gates travels to Bratislava for a NATO meeting of defence ministers that will be dominated by the troubled war effort in Afghanistan.