U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says North Korea remains a real threat to security on the Korean peninsula and in the world. He is in South Korea, where he is urging Seoul to beef up its military to reflect its status as an emerging world power.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised South Korean defense reforms Wednesday, saying the country's military is becoming more mobile and better able to contribute to international peacekeeping and security operations. He says South Korea's rising status deserves a bigger budget.
"We encourage the Republic of Korea's political leaders to make an investment to Korea's emerging role as a contributor to global security, and commensurate with the threat you face on the peninsula," Gates said.
The United States deploys about 28,000 military personnel in South Korea, to help deter any attempted repeat of the North's 1950 invasion. Gates is expected to meet Thursday with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Tae-young, to discuss issues affecting the alliance, as well as possible South Korean contributions to stabilizing Afghanistan.
In Wednesday's meeting with U.S. and South Korean service members, he said North Korea has both declined - and strengthened - as a military threat.
"Ironically as the capability of their ground forces continues to degrade in terms of being a threat, their missile development and nuclear programs are increasingly dangerous and destabilizing…. I also think North Korea is a serious proliferation threat," Gates said. "Everything they make, they seem to want to sell."
Gates says the United States is committed to seeking a "complete and verifiable" end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
"There should be no mistaking that we do not today nor will we ever accept a North Korea with nuclear weapons," Gates said.
The North has conducted two nuclear weapons tests. Washington has granted a visa to a senior North Korean official expected to attend a California security forum this month. Many regional experts see that trip as an opportunity for high-level diplomatic contact, as Washington tries to lure Pyongyang back to talks aimed at ending its nuclear programs.
Secretary Gates says the U.S. will back its diplomacy with an "enduring and capable" military presence on the Korean peninsula.
"The United States is committed to providing extended deterrence using the full range of American military might - from the nuclear umbrella to conventional strike and missile defense capabilities," Gates said.
Gates' boss, President Barack Obama, is scheduled to visit Seoul next month.