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SEOUL — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Wednesday that while some of North Korea’s military capabilities have lessened, the communist nation has become “even more lethal and destabilizing,” particularly in its efforts to develop and sell nuclear weapons.

“There should be no mistaking that we do not today, nor will we ever, accept a North Korea with nuclear weapons,” he told about 150 U.S. and South Korean troops at U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan in Seoul, the third stop in a series of high-profile meetings around the world.

North Korea conducted its second nuclear test in May, and followed it with a series of missile launches. It also launched five short-range missiles last week. Gates said the U.S. is committed to using the “full range of American military might” to deter North Korea from striking.

He said that while the capabilities of North Korea’s ground forces are deteriorating, their nuclear programs are becoming an increasing threat.

“Its armed forces can still inflict enormous destruction south of the Demilitarized Zone, though North Korea’s ability to launch another conventional ground invasion is much degraded from even a decade or so ago,” he said.

He emphasized the role of other countries in stabilizing the region, particularly once-poor South Korea, now one of the wealthiest countries in Asia and defended by what military officials here describe as an increasingly modern, capable military. South Korea is scheduled to assume wartime control of all troops in the country in 2012.

Gates did not comment on whether South Korea would deploy troops to Afghanistan, although he said the country’s recently announced plans for a new peacekeeping unit were “especially welcome.” He told reporters earlier in the trip that he wanted South Korea to share in the burden of success in Afghanistan.

Reflecting the growth of its military, he said, South Korea now deploys troops overseas for its own security instead of as a favor to the U.S., which has 28,500 troops stationed there as a deterrent to North Korea.

When asked by a South Korean soldier in the audience about China’s close ties with North Korea, Gates said China is becoming an economic power and has reason to prevent destabilizing activities in the region. He said the U.S. should develop a dialogue with China, and increase transparency in military programs to prevent mistakes and miscalculations on both sides.

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