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Gates Says North Korea Could Be a Threat to US Within 5 Years

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates shakes hands with China's President Hu Jintao, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 11 Jan 2011.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says North Korea will likely have a missile that can reach the United States within five years, and his talks in Beijing this week were aimed in part at getting China to help put the Pyongyang government "on a different path." Gates wants North Korea to declare a moratorium on further testing of its most dangerous weapons.

Secretary Gates told reporters he shared this concern with Chinese officials.

"With the North Koreans continuing development of nuclear weapons and their development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States and we have to take that into account," he said.

Gates said any capability for a North Korean missile attack on the United States will be "very limited" in five years, but he said it is still cause for concern.

"I think it is the combination of the continuing nuclear programs but also the progress that they are making with the intercontinental ballistic missiles," said Gates. "I don’t think it is an immediate threat, no, but on the other hand I don’t think it is a five-year threat."

Secretary Gates said North Korea could demonstrate its sincerity as it now seeks renewed talks with the South by declaring a moratorium on missile and nuclear testing.

He said he discussed North Korea with all the Chinese officials he met with in Beijing on Monday and Tuesday, including President Hu Jintao. He said he did not ask for specific action, but did ask for help. China has more influence on North Korea than any other country, but even Chinese officials appear to have been frustrated with the country’s unpredictable leaders in recent months. Gates praised Chinese efforts to help ease tensions after two North Korean attacks, one on a South Korean ship and another on an island.

Gates’ statement that North Korea will be able to directly threaten the United States raises concerns about the country’s high-technology weapons and unpredictable leadership to a new level. Gates called the situation on the Korean Peninsula a "real concern," and said "there is some urgency" to moving ahead with negotiations. In addition to the emerging threat to the United States, he said South Koreans are losing patience, and another North Korean attack would bring pressure for a reaction by the Seoul government.