U.S. officials say North Korea's recent moves will be a key topic for Defense Secretary Robert Gates as he heads to Singapore late Wednesday, arriving Friday morning, to attend an annual regional defense conference.
Secretary Gates' trip to the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore was planned long ago, and officials say the goal remains to reinforce the U.S. commitment to Asian security. But Pentagon officials acknowledge that North Korea's recent actions provide "heightened urgency" to the talks Gates will have with defense ministers and other officials from several Asian countries.
One senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the North Korean threat must be addressed because the combination of nuclear weaponry and missile capability is, in his words, "a potential game changer," particularly in combination with what he called "recent other provocative North Korean behavior."
The official said it may be difficult to affect North Korea's behavior directly, but the United States will work to "shore up and reinforce and deepen" relations with its allies and friends in the region. The official says the United States wants "to have a dialogue" with Asian nations to "work together on what the proper responses should be" to North Korea's actions.
Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman had this to say about the conference.
"This is a gathering of countries in the region that have a particular interest in the destabilizing actions and activities of North Korea, so obviously it is going to be something that is of discussion. But in terms of how does it change the secretary's plans? No, we have talked about the troublesome nature of North Korea for some time," said Whitman.
Other officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said North Korea's actions demonstrate the importance of regional defense discussions, such as this weekend's conference in Singapore. In addition to the large-group and bi-lateral meetings, Secretary Gates will attend what officials believe will be the first tri-lateral defense ministers' meeting involving the United States, Japan and South Korea on Saturday. Officials acknowledge North Korea will be the main focus of that discussion.
In addition to Secretary Gates, several other senior U.S. officials will attend the conference, including the deputy secretary of state, the director of national intelligence and the commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific.