U.S. military officials in South Korea are hopeful that North Korea will fulfill its recent promise to shut down its nuclear facilities. But as Joseph Popiolkowski reports from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong, they remain concerned by the North's development of new missiles.
General B.B. Bell, the U.S. military commander in South Korea, says North Korea's stockpile of missiles and willingness to test them remain a significant danger to its southern neighbor.
Speaking at the National Press Club in Seoul, Bell criticized the North for testing an advanced short-range missile last week while International Atomic Energy Agency officials were in the country.
Bell says he is concerned by the possibility North Korea could marry its missile and nuclear technology, even as leaders of the communist-controlled north promised to halt its nuclear program.
"One of the biggest threats to peace and stability is the potential capability for North Korea to couple its missile technology with its demonstrated nuclear capability. This is real," he said. "It has peninsular, regional and global implications. And we can not and must not ignore it."
The North Korean military has conducted several tests of its short-range missile systems in the past few months. The missiles are capable of hitting most of South Korea.
Bell says he welcomes North Korea's decision to return to the six-party talks, which are aimed at shutting down its nuclear weapons programs.
"There are hopeful signs that North Korea is willing to return to the action plan they agreed to during the six-party talks this past February. I sincerely hope they do so," he said. "We should take every opportunity to encourage North Korea to stand down its threatening posture, abide by international law and agreements, join the world's peaceful and prosperous nations, and conclude a peace treaty on the Korean peninsula."
The United States and South Korea have had a military partnership since the Korean War armistice in 1953, and about 28,000 U.S. troops are based in South Korea. Recently, the two nations agreed Seoul would gain full operational control of its military during wartime by 2012.