BEIJING — North Korea likely will possess intercontinental ballistic missiles within five years and is “becoming a direct threat to the United States,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday, offering a blunt new assessment of the threat posed by the reclusive Stalinist regime.
Shortly after meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing, Gates said he had told senior leaders here that he had identified two developments that “changed the status quo” on the Korean peninsula: Pyongyang’s continued development of nuclear weapons and ICBMs, and South Korea’s growing anger with the North’s attacks, notably the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island.
“Clearly if there is another provocation, there will be pressure on the South Korean government to react,” he said. “We consider this a situation of real concern.”
Gates predicted that North Korea will have a limited ability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon within five years.
“I don’t think it’s an immediate threat, but on the other hand I don’t think it’s a five-year threat,” Gates said.
The U.S. defense secretary praised Chinese leaders for their role in persuading Pyongyang to cease attacks against the South.
“In every one of our meetings, I said that the U.S. government recognizes and appreciates the constructive role that the Chinese have played in these last several months in dampening tensions on the Korean peninsula,” Gates told a small group of reporters at his hotel.
Gates said the U.S. felt “with some urgency” it was time to proceed “down the track of negotiations and engagement” with North Korea, but not until there was real change from Pyongyang, such as committing to halt missile or nuclear tests.
“Rhetoric is not enough this time,”he said. “I think there needs to be some concrete actions.”
Meanwhile, just a day after Gates said that China’s military leaders had agreed to take steps toward greater transparency, the People’s Liberation Army conducted a provocative test flight of China’s new J-20 stealth fighter that appeared to catch China’s civilian leaders by surprise.
Reports of the test surfaced just hours before Gates and Hu met, and raised questions as to whether the events were timed to embarrass Gates.
“I asked President Hu about it directly,” Gates said, “and he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit, and had been a preplanned test, and that’s where we left it.”
But a senior defense official later told reporters, “When Secretary Gates raised the question of the J-20 test in the meeting with President Hu, it was clear that none of the civilians in the room had been informed.”
Gates said he has long been concerned about a gap between China’s military and political leaders.
“I’ve had concerns about this over time,” he told reporters. “And frankly it’s one of the reasons why I attach importance to a dialogue between the two sides that involves both civilians and militaries.”
Despite the test flight, and with no major signed agreements or commitments in hand, Gates said that he felt China’s leadership was ready to move forward with greater cooperation.
“It’s been a very positive visit,” Gates said, from China’s hospitality to the cordial tone of his meetings to China agreeing to restart military exchanges initiated in 2009. Just last June, China spurned a visit by Gates, turning him away in a protest over arms sales to Taiwan. Both sides held firm in their positions on that topic.
“I think this is an arena where you have to play the long game,” he later added. “This is not an area where I think you will see dramatic breakthroughs or big headlines, but rather the evolutionary growth of relationships and activities together that over time have a positive effect on the overall relationship. … I think we made some real progress here; I think there’s a desire to move forward.”
Gates was scheduled to visit China’s nuclear strike command and the Great Wall on Wednesday before flying to Tokyo.